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Uncover the truth about return-to-office challenges.  

By: Aquent

Leaders collaborate on returning to the office and making the most of hybrid for design and creative teams. 
LAST UPDATED: August 30, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Many large employers want employees back in the office, and there are some benefits that don't accrue to remote work.
  • Leaders need to be intentional about how to use in-person time to maximize the benefits.
  • Face-to-face interaction in the office is most beneficial for informal collaboration, team bonding and culture, separation of home and work, and intentional allyship.

Listen: Uncover the truth about return-to-office challenges.  

After three years of pandemic-enforced remote work, many large employers are itching to get employees back into the office (at least, for those who still have offices). There have been a variety of explanations put forward for this, not just the need to justify exorbitant capital expenditures on the offices themselves. But beyond that, leaders have recognized that there are distinct benefits to connecting IRL (in real life), ones that don't necessarily accrue to remote work. 

Although remote and hybrid work arrangements have their own benefits for both individuals and businesses, working remotely doesn't always offer the same advantages as working in person. 

But what's common to nearly all of our leaders is that making the best use of their teams' in-person time and remote work, respectively, has presented a conundrum: What are offices actually good for? How do they make sure that their teams are in the office when they're actually needed for business-critical face-to-face work? And what kind of activities are in-person gatherings best for, anyway?

Jam session questions and takeaways

On March 28, we convened a group of InsideOut leaders from both the Operations world and the Design/Experience side of enterprises for a new program format we've dubbed Jam Sessions: Outcome-based, collaborative working sessions around a specific challenge with relevance to all members. Our objective was to answer three questions:

  • What kinds of benefits are we looking for from in-person work that doesn't necessarily accrue to virtual collaboration?
  • For which kinds of work are in-person sessions truly necessary for design/creative teams? 
  • What do we prioritize for face-to-face time in the office?

Read on for design leaders' answers to these questions and ideas to optimize in-person time in your hybrid work environment.

Informal collaboration and creative problem-solving

In-house design leaders manage teams who are responsible for work that's arguably more creative, and more collaborative, than the typical knowledge worker. To do their jobs well, design teams must work not just within but across silos, and generating innovative new ways of solving problems is a key remit. Productivity is important—but creativity is no less so.

In our session, we heard frequently that leaders are longing for the organic riffing and spitballing around problems and solutions that can happen naturally in an office setting. Remote work has prescribed and confined such interactions to tools like Slack, email, and calendar events, which can lack serendipitous benefits. 

They cited shared meals, for example, and the ability to connect outside of laptop-bound tech tools via intra-office “stop-bys” and other informal ways of signaling that one is open to chatting, which may seem incidental but play a role in creative problem-solving.

A related challenge we heard is that the urgent tends to take priority over the important in remote environments, leading to a stifling of creativity and innovative work across the board. And because wrangling the technology to support collaborative remote work tends to take longer than similar work done in person, there's a lot more urgent to go around.

The challenge was revealed as finding ways to optimize in-person days at the office for collaboration and creativity around big problems, mentorship, and feedback.

Bonding and team building

In our session, we heard many remote-work challenges related to bonding with peers and collaborating with teams. For example, it's become harder for leaders to know their teams' (and colleagues') strengths and collaborative styles. Collaborative engagement can be low or take on the nature of box-ticking, i.e., going through the motions. 

Organizational culture has arguably never been more important to employees than now. Gallup found employees who strongly agree that they feel connected to their culture are 3.7 times as likely to be engaged at work and 5.2 times as likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work. Conversely, disengaged employees are 2.6 times more likely to leave for a better culture. 

Yet culture is also weirdly resistant to formal statute; it exists more in the patterns of behavior and communication than in the writing on the wall. InsideOut design leaders observed that because of this, many have found it difficult to learn, model, practice, and strengthen their organizations' cultures when their teams aren't interacting and bonding with each other around unspoken and implicit cultural signals and clues. 

Having more in-person interactions, they said, helps people absorb and reflect the culture better. Equally important, they agreed, is that it helps people feel that they're part of a company, not just members of a team.

The insight here for our leaders was that extra care is needed to acculturate remote-first workers not just to the team but to the company and its values, which are often less visible in day-to-day remote work for them. How might leaders make the most of in-person days to lean into relationship-building and strengthening cultural connections? 

Separation of home and work

“Get me out of my living room!” is how one of our participants expressed her feelings about working from home. While it's true that many have welcomed the chance to rid themselves of tedious commutes and open office plans for their own domiciles, there's evidence that even for those who've embraced working from home, it's not all bunny slippers and midday naps. 

Productivity during the pandemic may have soared, but as Forbes has reported, over two-thirds of employees who work from home at least part of the time have reported trouble stepping away from work at the end of the day. 

Working from an office, on the other hand, can be an effective way of creating a clear separation between work and home life. When we work in an office, we have a designated workspace that is separate from our personal space. This physical separation helps us mentally draw a line between our work responsibilities and our personal lives. 

At the end of the workday, we can leave the office and transition into our home life. For some people, ultimately, having a physical divide between work and home can help us achieve a better work-life balance and reduce the risk of burnout.

Intentionality of allyship

On one hand, there's good evidence that remote and hybrid work arrangements can be beneficial for DEI initiatives in general. 

Requiring employees to physically commute to an office excludes many with physical disabilities from jobs they are otherwise able and willing to perform. For those shouldering the bulk of family care responsibilities (hint: still mostly women), the option to work from home has been most welcome. And the ability to hire without regard for geography has opened up millions of BIPOC and other marginalized people for employment without the need to limit recruitment only to a corporate HQ's immediate location.

Allyship, however, is more personal than corporate DEI initiatives. As individuals, we don't experience (or foster) inclusion through abstract strategies but through actual interactions with our colleagues. Some of these interactions are incidental: over lunch, by the microwave, during meetings, waiting for the elevator. And yet interactions that advance allyship can be designed with intent as well. 

Allyship may be strongest, in fact, when it happens shoulder to shoulder. It requires deep and sincere curiosity about others' experiences in the world; it calls for empathetic engagement, authentic conversations, and vulnerable interactions—which themselves require a firm sense of psychological safety. That's not to say it doesn't happen within remote and hybrid teams, just that, as our leaders noted, getting it right requires real intent in both settings.

Conclusion

In coming together for our first Jam Session and articulating their own experiences, frustrations, and lessons learned, InsideOut's design leaders identified four main areas to focus in-person time: informal creative collaboration, strengthening ties to the team and the company, creating better work-life boundaries for those that seek them, and providing opportunities for allyship. 

In a second follow-up article, we'll look at how they've elected to optimize hybrid work to make the most of those benefits, along with some examples, and how they think about prioritizing the kinds of in-person activities that best realize those benefits.