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Return-to-Office: How Company Leaders can Prepare for the Future of Work

Sadasia McCutchen
04 Jun 2021
Return-to-Office: How Company Leaders can Prepare for the Future of Work

An important part of our work with founders is to inspire them to think about the future of work in innovative ways. Our Return-to-Office series is designed to help leaders develop a thoughtful approach to getting teams together in new and productive ways and prepare for the economic recovery to come.

As part of the series, a group of HR leaders from CapitalG portfolio companies Duolingo, Thumbtack, Collibra, Unqork, Dataiku, Lyft, and Webflow recently met with several HR leaders from across Google to talk through best practices for employees coming back into an office — and at the same time recognize the challenges around returning. We invited Taz Chaudhry, director of future of work & workforce planning; Alexandra Maddison, director of benefits; and Sohini Stone, benefits medical director & senior staff clinical specialist, to discuss new working strategies with our portfolio HR leaders.

This group looked closely at the challenges and opportunities coming to large and small businesses alike. We covered everything from hybrid work schedules to modeling good behavior to the many questions around vaccinated employees. What follows are a few key takeaways from our conversation.

Your return-to-office plans can reset expectations and establish new norms.

“Returning to the office” isn’t only about getting people back into your company’s physical spaces. The group felt that this is a once-in-a-generation moment to reset from old pre-COVID habits (over-valuing long hours, working in silos) in favor of more shared responsibilities and greater collaboration across time zones and tasks.

Build intention into a flexible or hybrid work week for employees.

After more than a year of virtual work, employees and managers are understandably eager to meet face-to-face again. But most companies need to figure out new ways to create those connections, both virtually and in workspaces, with evolving health and safety measures in place. Many companies are looking at a hybrid work plan; one example is employees coming into the office two or three days a week, and working elsewhere the other days. Companies adopting this approach need to help employees and managers take advantage of time together for productive group stand-ups instead of quiet time for independent tasks that may be easier to do outside the office. Your strategy may also vary function to function, as some roles operate more independently (i.e. business analysts or compensation designers versus more collaborative areas like UX).

Leaders need to model new office behaviors.

Given a new approach to getting work done, managers will need to set the right tone and model how to work. It may seem obvious, but the leadership team must honor the flexible work schedule and not expect or demand others to appear when they are not planning to be in the office. If leaders don’t follow their own rules, it can create uncertainty and even mistrust among teams.

The group brought up several other good habits for managers to model:

  • Make sure not every meeting is a videoconference. For a 1:1 meeting, make it a walk-and-talk, for example (even by phone).
  • If the entire team isn’t on site, hold occasional group meetings via videoconference to make sure off-site employees don’t feel like they’re somewhat removed from the “live action”.
  • Introduce focus days when no meetings are scheduled so that employees can concentrate on project work.
  • Be more intentional about documenting meetings, agendas and sharing information across teams, particularly when not everyone is in the same office.

Be prepared to navigate evolving vaccine requirements and public health policies.

One of the biggest questions that came up during our discussion was about encouraging employees to get the vaccine without penalizing those who don’t. Companies must also be aware of local, state and federal guidelines in relation to their workforce, especially where there are different rules and opportunities for those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t.

Keep in mind that mandating the vaccine for all employees, even if it’s legally permitted, is not a guaranteed health and safety measure because no company can mandate the vaccine for employee households and families. And while it was once believed that anyone who comes into the office would need to social distance and wear a mask, that appears to be changing: the CDC recently updated its guidelines to allow fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks and social distancing indoors and outdoors. Companies will need to decide how to respond to those new guidelines given their workforce and office requirements.

Among other things, companies contemplating a vaccine policy need to consider:

  • Equity. How does the company ensure that employees who don’t want to be vaccinated or are unable to be vaccinated don’t experience workplace bias that prevents them from connecting with their team or participating in events? On the other hand, how do companies ensure employees who feel unsafe without a vaccine mandate don’t feel uncomfortable about returning to the office?
  • Legal implications. In some jurisdictions, employment law may not allow employers to ask about a worker’s COVID-related health status.
  • Cultural impact. Companies will need to balance the need for team safety with individual autonomy and cultural practices and preferences.

While most companies’ vaccine policies will likely evolve over time, what’s not up for debate is that companies at all stages of growth will need to develop a sound Return-to-Office strategy. CapitalG portfolio leaders are tackling these questions and coming up with useful answers, knowing that a sound Return-to-Office approach is crucial to every company’s ability to grow and flourish.

We’re excited to help companies build the plane as we’re flying it. We’ll continue to share insights from our conversations.

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