Good afternoon! In the last months, a lot of discussions about hybrid work plans have centered around continued remote work strategies and safe office reopenings. But as workers do return to offices, there also have to be plans about how to use that sometimes-limited time wisely. This week, we asked the Braintrust to tell us about the most important things that need to happen when employees are all together, since being apart at least some of the time looks to be part of the new normal. Questions or comments? Send us a note at email@example.com
Chief People Officer at Coupa
We are entering a new phase in the future of work where companies are challenged to create physical working environments with the notion of employee empowerment at the center of it. At Coupa, we are thinking about this through the lens of a program we call "Coupa Colors," which promotes communication transparency so employees know how to best engage with colleagues based on their preferred working style. When the pandemic hit, we took Coupa Colors virtual and encouraged employees to express which colors they lead with with others. The custom Zoom backgrounds were particularly popular.
Now, Coupa Colors is providing a foundation for how we are redesigning office spaces. We want to provide a variety of working environments that cater to a variety of employee needs. For example, when someone seeks creativity and collaboration, this aligns with the characteristics of the yellow Coupa Color category and we will have designated areas in the office that cater to this need. We have just begun experimenting with this approach in one of our smaller and newer offices, and are looking forward to employee feedback to adapt how we bring it to life in other offices.
The last year and a half has proven that teams are just as productive and creative working from home. We have more time and flexibility to do our best work, and we can leverage digital tools to collaborate and create with colleagues no matter where they're located. Against this backdrop, when we do gather again in offices, these in-person interactions should play a more defined and purposeful role — they should be focused on building and strengthening the social ties that sustain effective collaboration amongst distributed colleagues for the long term.
Teams should resist the pull to use up the limited in-person time they have together gathered around whiteboards or in conference rooms brainstorming on creative projects. Future Forum's research shows that remote work has actually had a positive impact on individual creativity, providing more focused time to get into the "flow" and buffering against groupthink. It also shows that where your colleagues work has no bearing on team creativity. What's more, most workers who've started using new collaboration tools while working remotely say that the rate of innovation at their companies has kept pace or improved.
Instead, teams should use their in-person time on camaraderie-building activities that contribute to psychological safety — increasing individuals' willingness to take risks and their comfort level with asking for help. Focus on using physical time together to strengthen relationships and networks among and across teams. Investing in this foundation will build interpersonal trust, which will in turn unlock greater creativity and productivity over the long term.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when you're finally with your coworkers in person, don't do work! Tell your company you're taking your team on vacation, on purpose — if that isn't received well, I'm happy to talk to them directly . Things like going out for meals or doing an activity together foster relationships and build trust to fuel your team for the long run.
Before the pandemic (and hopefully after), we'd host an annual event for the entire globally distributed Trello organization to gather in one physical location. Over three days of "Trello Together," we plan for one hour of work: an all-hands company meeting. The rest of the time is for socializing and team-building — sometimes it's hanging out by the pool and sometimes it's go-kart racing. We provide options and let people choose their own adventure. Atlassian (our parent company) also encourages semi-annual off-sites for smaller teams with a similar focus on team bonding.
The longer our interactions are limited to digital tools, the harder it is to interpret the humanity behind the screen. Take advantage of those rare times together to strengthen relationships and build trust. It will save you hours of conflict resolution down the line.
Teams with healthy rapport are more likely to assume the best of each other, even when a message doesn't land quite "right" over Slack or email. From video to chat, the collaboration tools at our fingertips are the best they've ever been — but we won't get anywhere without the right team dynamic behind them.
One reason people stay and thrive at a company is because they enjoy being around others at work. Home time is great for productivity while office time is best for collaboration and brainstorming and building relationships. In-person team meetings, sitting next to each other, happy hours. These face-to-face interactions are more important than ever.
Since the pandemic, a company's vision and mission has become exponentially more valuable as a uniting force. When folks are in the office, remind them why they chose to work there and what makes the work they do special. Show them what they've been missing and why the office IS a fantastic place to be.
When employees are back in the office together, the first thing that needs to happen is getting to know the workplace again. Who's sitting next to me? Where's the closest printer? Where can I pick up my deliveries? Is so-and-so in the office and if so, where's she sitting? In the past people knew their way around, but that can't be assumed any longer. Office configurations have changed. And, a significant number of people that were hired during the pandemic have never been to their office. This is where technology can make the employee return a great one. Virtual mapping, hot desking, contactless access. There's never been a better time to experiment with tech that will make the transition from remote to hybrid a little easier.
At Cisco, our offices are intended to be centers of collaboration — places that people can come together for rituals, collective work and connection. To help achieve this, we are asking each team to define their hybrid model and necessary rituals. This model brings to life our belief that the purpose of coming into the office should be exactly that — purposeful. Additionally, we will continue to ensure that whether we are together or apart, the experience and value of the work remains the same for all. At Cisco, we believe work is not where you go, it's what you do.
As organizations return to the office, it will be essential for employers to maintain the increased level of communication and resulting action we've seen take place with remote work. Listening, understanding and acting on employee feedback played a critical role in engagement when face-to-face interaction has been exceedingly rare. We can't miss the opportunity to keep up this level of engagement so that employees feel heard and understood.
When the pandemic began, organizations took action to adjust to a teleworking culture, including navigating the challenges employees faced in this new reality. By listening to their employees, they understood a new way of work was essential to the well-being of their workforce and adapted, offering things like flexible schedules and increased mental health resources. We need to acknowledge that needs may shift once employees return, while some continue to connect virtually. Learning to manage a true hybrid work model will require a different set of skills, including being mindful that old "behaviors" that lead to proximity bias do not come back and create a mixed experience. The best way to determine that path forward is to take the time to actively listen, understand and act upon your employees' feedback.
At the end of the day, employees' needs and concerns may be entirely different than originally expected when it comes to the future of work. By taking these crucial steps of actively listening and acting upon what is learned, employers will be able to quickly build organizational trust and confidence with their employees, resulting in an empathetic, thriving culture.
Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is a Research Editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.