Remote work is great, but the office is key to culture, connection, mentorship and growth.
Intentional. That’s how more executives are starting to view the office in the post-COVID workplace.
Remote work has been key to businesses’ survival throughout the pandemic, but as the virus lingers, leaders are realizing that it’s not enough to Zoom for two years straight. When it comes to culture, mentorship, team-building, and collaboration, remote work is failing employees, especially young people, who desperately want professional growth and connection.
Employers now realize the importance of place, and they’re even hiring leaders as “chief culture officer” to manage culture and connectivity and to design “experiences” around the office. Now, the office as a destination is becoming a more common theme, and increasingly, the destination is about mentorship, culture, and professional development.
Call it the new off-site—or a new twist on those quarterly or annual get togethers of the past that were held outside the office for bonding, deep-dives, trust falls and ropes courses. The office is serving as that outside place to get away from your usual at-home work routine for bonding and learning. No tree-top ropes course necessary.
“There’s a shift in how the office is being used because you have to create an experience that is better than the one people have at home,” says Sarah Brophy, design director at IA Interior Architects in Boston.
Taking a Break from Home
For employers, professional development is an important way to invest in employee engagement and ultimately boost the bottom line. Increasingly, it’s becoming critical to curbing turnover amid the Great Resignation—as many as 4.5 million left their jobs in November alone.
It pays when it comes to recruiting: Learning and mentoring has long been among the top 10 reasons for people when taking a job, according to consulting firm Deloitte.
And it pays when it comes to keeping employees: People who get professional development opportunities are 15% more engaged and have 34% higher retention than those who don’t, according to a recent survey by Better Buys.
“Employees want to grow on the job: Up, down, and sideways,” writes workplace strategist and coach Erica Keswin in the January issue of Harvard Business Review. Since the early days of the pandemic, Keswin has been working with CEOs and HR leaders to help them manage their teams in the hybrid environment.
“People want to know that there’s a path to laddering up, and many fear that being remote doesn’t give them as many opportunities for mobility,” wrote Keswin.
Small Interactions Mean Big Lessons
While the rise of remote work has saved money, boosted productivity, eliminated commutes and offered more flexibility, it has also robbed people of minor interactions that can be a big deal when it comes to work.
That small talk in the office, the passing conversations, seeing your manager’s body language while walking through the hallway—they all add up over time to big teaching moments for new employees, whether it’s about how to interact with peers or grow within the company. People are reporting that they’re feeling increasingly disconnected from colleagues and supervisors—especially younger workers—and prompting them to struggle to understand their corporate culture.
“Mentorship and learning is so organic, and it’s not happening in this environment we’re living in with the pandemic,” Brophy says. She’s now helping clients design space that fosters not only collaboration but that over-the-shoulder mentoring, culture and a common mission.
Designing with Purpose
To create a purposeful office, leaders are rethinking what the workplace means to them, says Brophy. Some organizations view the office primarily for collaboration, and they’re building out conference areas both large and small. In fact, IA Interior Architects has seen the amount of conferencing space jump up to 55% as companies build out new office space since the pandemic.
More companies are also incorporating hospitality amenities, such as in-house coffee shops and cafeterias with company-subsidized food so people feel more comfortable during an all-day collaboration session or conference in the office, she says. “It’s about differentiating the experience at home from one you’re having in the office, and encouraging employees to want to be together,” says Brophy. “So it’s not only about amenities; it’s about the experience.”
The viewpoint about collaborative spaces is fluid and evolving as the pandemic continues. Conference room and AV solutions can create an equitable experience for remote and in-person in smaller meeting rooms, but larger rooms prioritize in-person vs remote meetings, says Brophy.
Superdays and Rituals
Many leaders have turned to hosting regular team-building events in their offices. This goes for Reuben Daniels, managing partner of investment banking firm EA Markets. Daniels wanted to enable employees to work from anywhere, but he recognized there needed to be space for people to complete tasks, be creative, and connect. His answer: monthly “Superdays,” which would be held in a rented office space.
Daniels hired workplace strategist Keswin to help design the Superdays around three themes: Health, in terms of flexible office choices, limited commutes and team building; wealth, which includes sprint-like work sessions, team lunches and events; and growth, which includes time for personal and professional development. Superdays would automatically include professional development into the structure of the day.
“Growth isn’t an afterthought or something an employee can only do on their own time, which is why during our working session, employees brainstormed ideas that included: having lunch-and-learns, interviewing senior leaders about their career paths, bringing in outside speakers, and hosting book clubs,” wrote Keswin in HBR.
Building Your Own On-Site, Off-Site Event
Keswin outlines how other companies can create their own off-site events inside their offices by carving out in-person days each week or month—in which everyone across the company participates. “What matters is that everyone learns—on the clock,” she writes. This should knit together culture, lead to a more engaged workforce—and make for a more intentional use of office space.
She says that the ultimate goal is to design your office space with your values in mind. “It’s important to take your values off the walls and into the halls, and on-sites are a wonderful way to do that,” Keswin writes.
Those in-office off-sites can be an important ritual that really allows people to feel connected to the organization and their team. For instance, pre-COVID, EA employees held standing meetings every Friday at 9 a.m. in which the conversation moved from company progress to company connection. People were able to get to know each other, connect as people, and end the week on a positive note. “Simple time like this is a glue that holds people together,” wrote Keswin. Daniels hopes that the new Superdays will become that new ritual.
While the widespread reliance on remote work has led to a more flexible way of working, the office will only evolve to become more intentional in its design and in its use. Smart companies will use the office as a gathering place to foster learning and connection for a more engaged and ultimately more successful workforce down the road.