Have you ever been to a fashion show? Organizers take pains to make sure everything is just right — the chairs are measured so that they can fit a precise number of people in the room, and they know exactly where VIPs need to be assigned to sit so they can get the best view of the show. Classy music plays.
Take a peek backstage, and it looks like a warehouse that a tornado ran through. People are yelling and screaming. It is so messy, it borders on mayhem. But when the model hits the stage, you’d never know the chaos that lay behind the curtain.
This is my imperfect metaphor for how we perceived office life before the pandemic. People’s home lives may have been messy, but they were often hidden.
The shift to remote work ripped the curtains open. Now, it’s perfectly normal not only to see your co-workers in sweats and hear their kids screaming in the background, but for teams to discuss critical-but-at-times-messy topics such as workplace inclusion and diversity, including their company’s anti-racism commitments, and what work-life balance should ideally look like. And even as some people return to offices, it’s clear we can’t put the lid back on these conversations.
Even if We Return to the Office, We’re Not Going Back to the Way It Was
Fundamentally, one of the main lessons of the past two years is that we now understand that knowledge workers can work from anywhere without affecting their productivity. The second work-related revelation is that it’s not hard for businesses to make sweeping changes if the right motivators are in place, and people can adapt.
Remote work also brought mental health and health in general to the forefront of people’s minds. That’s directly connected to another trend of the past two years: The U.S.’s (re)nascent labor movement has been gaining traction. We’ve seen repeated attempts from Amazon and Starbucks employees, many of whom are people of color, to unionize. Workers are becoming conscientious about the environment in which they work, and they’re demanding the right to work in one that is supportive and concerned with their health and development. They’re seeking work that brings meaning to their lives.
My 3 Predictions On How the Return to Office Will Impact the Corporate World
3 Predictions for RTO for the Working World
- More defined interactions.
- Inclusion will continue to challenge companies.
- Decisions will result from conversations with employees.
1. More Defined Interactions
Although a certain set of companies have embraced working from home, with a willingness to be flexible and creative with how they engage with their workers, others want to forget about the past two years and return to a time when spending every day in the office was the norm. For example, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon ordered 10,000 New York-based workers back to the office on February 1 because remote work “is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal.” (Only about half returned.)
What seems to be common among those workers wishing to return is a desire for more interaction in a company’s workspace. They have a desire to go back to a time of connection, because that’s ultimately what we’re craving. More than free lunches and cafeteria rooms full of free snacks, companies need to make the office a destination — a place for connection, engagement, and inspiration. One way to do that is to offer perks that are more interesting and sophisticated. Leaders will have to define those aspects of their cultures in a way that is genuine and aligned with their values.
2. Inclusion Will Continue to Challenge Companies
Employees of color, especially women, have always faced challenges in the workplace, but the pandemic at last shone a light on their issues. Being remote gives everybody equal footing in terms of visibility. After all, it’s pretty hard to ignore the faces of colleagues in a box on the screen, with everyone visible to everyone all the time. Despite this increased visibility, inclusion and belonging will continue to be a challenge for companies, whether they decide to be mostly remote, hybrid, or in person.
Expect this conversation to gain more prominence around Juneteenth. It’ll be two years since the Black Lives Matter movement captured nationwide attention and a lot of companies put out anti-racist statements (Justworks included) and made commitments to address systemic racism. Leaders should expect pressure from both inside and outside their organizations to follow up on their promises, so now’s the time for a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) checkup.
3. Decisions Will Result From Conversations With Employees
Return-to-office (RTO) plans will have to be tailored to particular office cultures, industries, and employees’ needs. It’s not just a matter of flicking the lights back on and voila! Everybody’s back in the office. It has to be a deliberative process that considers a lot of different people’s needs, which are more apparent now than before the pandemic.
At Justworks, we openly talk about not just balancing work and life, but also difficulties such as the burden placed on working mothers, as well as issues faced by people of color. After all, a commute to the office is burdened by the same systemic challenges and inequities that employees experience in their lives. For example, given the rise of hate crimes against Asian women in New York, we must be sensitive to the fears and stresses this group experiences traveling to work. Commuting, in many respects, can be a choice between life and death for some people. It’s vital that employees be engaged in the conversation about what a return to office looks like.
Companies should develop a broader, more inclusive understanding about the stress of returning to the office. The threats to life and wellbeing don’t cease for Black people or Asian women because they happen to be on their way to work. Companies don’t need to solve it, but they need to acknowledge that it exists and as a result should have some sensitivity in developing their RTO plans.
Creating a More Balanced and Inclusive Future Starts With an Inclusive, Open, and Transparent RTO
The challenges of the past two years have changed work culture for good. Whether employees return to the office full time, some of the time, or don’t at all, they’re demanding meaningful interactions with their peers, real progress on DEI issues, and conversations with leaders about how their work gets done. Leaders going forward will be judged on how well they listen.