As the pace of vaccinations accelerates and states loosen mask-wearing and social-distancing restrictions, employers are spending a lot of time determining how to safely bring people back into the office. But health and safety measures aren't the only aspects of workplaces that need to evolve. Leaders should use this opportunity to part ways with office norms that no longer serve their employees--and maybe never did.
While it's natural to want to return to "the way things were," instead of harping on nostalgia and what will be missed, you need to think about the long-term changes you can make in how your office works rather than temporary changes driven by the pandemic.
Here are four things I believe will make the office better if we leave them in the pre-pandemic era:
1. Hosting long and laborious meetings
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings per person has risen by 12 percent since the pandemic, yet the average length of a meeting has declined by 20 percent. That means that despite people's calendars getting booked more often, there's a bigger appetite for bite-size meetings over the longer 60- or 90-minute sessions.
While Covid restrictions may force us to rethink meeting rooms, I'd challenge us to rethink the meeting itself. Let's make better use of our time and energy by sending a pre-meeting memo and using our time together to align on actions and decisions. Or, rather than spending 30 minutes walking through updates, considering a Loom video and allowing folks to react and respond asynchronously.
2. Scheduling after-work events
Before the pandemic, there was the notion that bonding and networking only happen in person. And those opportunities often happened after 5 p.m. Whether you're a caregiver, have hobbies outside of work, are an introvert, or just want brighter lines between work and fun, we need to be more intentional about creating meaningful connections with our colleagues while still allowing folks to keep their work-life balance.
Instead of defaulting back to in-person, after-work events, I'll be looking to add breaks within the workday where teams can connect and socialize that don't start super early or end late so that everyone can attend whether they are in the office or working remotely.
3. Coming into the office when you're sick
We've all felt the existential dread of walking into a conference room with someone who is coughing and sneezing. The only way we can return to working from an office is to learn from the past year and err on the side of caution when it comes to health.
My hope is that after a year of normalizing the concept that work isn't just a place, employees will be more comfortable with staying home when feeling under the weather. It simply isn't worth putting other employees and teammates at risk. For managers and leaders, the end of the pandemic shouldn't mean the end of encouraging people to avoid the office if they aren't feeling well.
No one should be expected to show up and tough it out, and no one should be rewarded for doing so.
4. Sitting through painful commute times
The average American worker spent 225 hours, or well over nine full calendar days, commuting before the pandemic. Seventy-five percent of Americans typically travel by car to get to work, which also has a negative impact on carbon emissions. There are definitely advantages to a commute, including separation between work and home and time to think or read, but for many people, commuting for hours at a time is something they would like to avoid doing every single day.
Providing options for employees to work when and where they work best will continue to be the best strategy for hiring and retaining top talent, and create less congestion on the road in the process.
While some have been counting down the days until they return to the office, there are a lot of people who are nervous about what that will look like and what's expected of them. As business leaders, the return to the office is an opportunity to rebuild what worked and rethink what didn't. Regardless of what you choose to keep or leave behind, your strategy should be rooted in empathy, clear communication, and a mission to create a better workplace than the one we left.