Like business leaders throughout the country, we’re currently grappling with how our employees should return to the office. Every day? A certain number of mandatory days? Completely optional? And when? We surveyed our employees and thought through countless potential scenarios. In March 2021, over 80% of our employees said they preferred either a fully remote or flexible hybrid remote work, and 75% of them were not fully comfortable with returning to the office.
In Q1 of 2021, when most companies were targeting a late-summer return day, we announced that our employees would not be required to return to the office prior to January 2022. We knew it would take some time to figure out and we wanted to allow ourselves that time to be as thoughtful as possible so that we set up our employees, and our company, for success. (Read: this was going to be confusing to figure out and we wanted to create a margin for error.) While some questioned if January 2022 was too slow of a return, the recent surge in cases due to the delta and lambda variants has shown that budgeting time for uncertainty was a prudent decision.
What we have come to accept is that you can’t possibly build a uniform return that makes everyone happy. There’s no one-size-fits-all scenario that works for everyone. When we reminded our Chief People Officer of this and said that everyone being happy was not the goal, she let out a huge exhale. The goal is to build a plan that takes into consideration what your employees need to feel supported, what your company needs to continue to thrive and a shared understanding that the plan will probably need to evolve. When the safety and peace of mind of your employees is on the line, you can’t rush a return for the sake of getting back to business as usual.
The first thing we considered is, what we are losing by not being in the office. It’s a lot easier to remember that you’re working alongside actual humans, who have lives outside of work and real feelings, when you see them in person and hear about their lives. While we’ve maintained a strong company culture virtually, team dynamics are stronger when we’re working side by side. Casual conversations about early ideas and brainstorming sessions are substantially more productive when you can go back and forth in person rather than waiting for a response on a screen. Additionally, when we’re not in the office, it's more difficult to differentiate between when you’re working collaboratively as part of a team vs. when you’re taking time to do your own work.
What do we gain by working remotely? Flexibility for starters. Studies have shown that people are actually working more hours during the week than they did before the pandemic, so a true 9 to 5 no longer exists (promotional plug: we just launched a new podcast to address this topic and equip our listeners with resources to help navigate their careers as they get ready to return to the office.) Remote and flexible work allows our team to create a schedule that works best for them and their families. Additionally, there’s a sense of comfort that comes from creating your own working environment. This is particularly true for people of color who tend to deal with fewer cases of microaggressions and bias by working remotely. Remote work can also create a greater sense of inclusivity and belonging for employees, especially LGBTQ employees.
It gets even trickier when you consider school openings and the timeline for kids being vaccinated. How can you mandate people work in the office if you can’t figure out where their kids will be? Not to mention, throughout the pandemic, we know women have had to take on more than their fair share of balancing work, parenting and household responsibilities.
Like many companies, we’re eventually going to return with a hybrid remote/in-office model. We want our teams to bond and to think as creatively as possible but we also want employees to feel like they have the flexibility to thrive and to feel they are in an environment best positioned for success. When we anecdotally share our back to office plans with peers -- largely older men--they gasp saying some version of ‘you gotta get everyone back in now!’
Which leads us to the other big thing on our minds...men are going back to work in person at higher rates. It's short-sighted to spend all of this time and energy planning an office return without getting real about what that can mean for working women who have had to balance a lot more during the pandemic. We don't want our women employees to inadvertently get screwed by a lack of facetime -- and the potential bias that can have on compensation or performance evaluations. So how do we ensure that everyone is on a level playing field? A carefully crafted performance model is a good way to fairly define and evaluate performance regardless of time spent in the office. But on the flip side, we don’t want our workforce to opt-out completely from working in an office. We want them to feel included and supported in the here and now, but also remain competitive for wherever their career path takes them. We feel a responsibility to prepare them for a life beyond theSkimm that may not be as flexible.
We're not going to arrive at a perfect solution that will satisfy everyone. To be clear, we know we'll have to manage this with many of our own employees as well. There will be bumps along the road. But we’re going to thoughtfully prepare and then adjust for a return that supports the needs of both our workforce and our business.
Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg
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