To Make Return-To-Office Work, Use Basic Tenets Of Effective Diversity And Inclusion
You’ve heard every perspective across the range already: some people are clamoring to get out of the house and back to an office, plenty of others would work remotely forever if their employers would let them, and still others want choice and flexibility now that we know that in-the-office isn’t the only way to work. (That’s assuming, of course, that people are even planning to keep working at all.) It’s not just employees who are without a monolithic view, either; some employers are insistent that the benefits of hybrid working outweigh the fumbling associated with finding a new way forward, while others are even more strident in their determination to return to some facsimile of how things used to be.
After a year and a half of collective public health crisis – not to mention the biggest contraction of global GDP in history – what’s clear is that there is no single path that’s going to work well for everyone. This isn’t a new phenomenon, really; it’s not as though working from a shared office on a standard schedule – still the most common organizing principle for workplaces prior to the COVID pandemic – was working for everyone, either. Back then, though, most organizations defaulted to the widely accepted if increasingly challenged standard that success at work requires coming to the same place at the same time as most other people.
Why don’t most people want to go back to the office? One widely-reported survey suggests that a combination of lifestyle factors (time saved commuting, more hours with family, not needing to get dressed every day), financial factors (money saved on transportation costs and meal costs), and health and wellness (avoiding COVID exposure) covers most reasons.
And why do employers want people back in a shared physical space? Ostensibly, that pull is about collaboration, culture, connection, community, innovation, and the ‘hallway’ or ‘water-cooler’ chatter that supposedly drives these things. But with businesses and economies worldwide achieving notable growth through the first half of 2021, there is little to no evidence that these drivers of performance have disappeared, even if they look different.
What, then, can a conscientious employer do to figure out the best new way of working for the business, its people, and its array of stakeholders?
Start from your intended impact, not just your actions. Begin with the desired end and work backwards; consider what impact you’re trying to drive. If your aim is to foster collaboration, articulate the expectations, habits, and behaviors that will enable real collaboration across boundaries. Plenty of global businesses have teams that collaborate to spectacular success, despite never being in the same country, never mind the same office. Coming into a building doesn’t foster collaboration in and of itself. Ask your teams what’s worked over the past year-and-a-half and determine with intent what you will carry forward.
Set expectations that apply to everyone with careful attention to different individual needs. Have you ever been the one person on a video conference while the rest of the group sat around a table together? The people in the room feel like they’ve been inclusive and made a terrific accommodation – your face is on a giant screen, and every time you talk, they hear and feel your presence. But when you’re the person alone, everyone else looks like a small dot, it’s not clear who’s talking, and the meeting is often a blur. The fix is simple: expect every team member to be on camera even if they’re in a room together and use a single microphone to avoid chaotic sound. A hybrid working model can work if the accommodation is the expected norm for everyone rather than the exception for one or two people.
Proactively solicit input and leadership from individuals who aren’t usually included by default. Imagine how different our offices would look if we asked employees with all range of physical mobility to construct them, rather than starting with stairs and setting ramps off to the side? (For starters, we’d probably have a lot fewer stairs.) What would our daily schedules look like if we asked people with childcare and elder care responsibilities to craft them? How would our shared physical spaces be constructed if they were designed by a neurodiverse group? A hearing-impaired group? Sometimes those of us who are the exception can see most clearly the problems with the rule.
Pay careful attention to context, even if it’s not your context. Deliver consistent, regular, proactive messages that prioritize resources for people whose experiences and/or identities may not be actively represented in the workplace. COVID has affected all of us, but major increases in associated crises (mental health crisis, substance use, and family violence, to name a few) have affected some employees more than others. Before you rush to ‘bring people back,’ consider what else you need to do to make the workplace physically, psychologically, emotionally, and practically safe and healthy for your employees. They aren’t the same as they were when they left; their needs aren’t the same, either.
Look for the outliers. If you’re running a survey, pay attention to the patterns and stories and patterns embedded in answers from the minority of respondents, not just the total preferences of the majority. Consider how needs that seem specific to individuals might actually be indicators of larger issues in your system, and how addressing those needs for everyone – not just the affected individuals – might help community as a whole.
Your office is not your culture, nor is it your company. True, that physical space is symbolic of your culture and your company, it holds artifacts of your culture and represents it, and it can play an important role in driving productivity, collaboration, and innovation. Knowing that, though, you don’t want the office to be a space where people feel forced to be physically present against their will or best interests; you want it to be a place that draws people in and where they are excited, energized, and motivated to be – whether that’s every day, a few times a year, or only on screen.
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