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Return to Office is About More Than Desks. It's an Opportunity to Re-Imagine the World of Work


 — April 22nd, 2022

Return to Office is About More Than Desks. It's an Opportunity to Re-Imagine the World of Work

Companies around the world are re-opening offices and welcoming back employees after what ended up being an impromptu, but perhaps very necessary upending of the world of work.

It’s exciting, a bit stressful, and kind of weird to see people outside of a laptop screen and, certainly, not everyone is on board with the whole idea.

BIPOC workers have experienced significant benefits in WFH.The Great Resignation is also still far from over, and the desire for flexibility is still top of mind.

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This makes Return to Office (RTO) a huge opportunity for companies. This is their chance to truly embrace a brave, new world and fundamentally re-imagine the purpose of the office and how it can help to create employee experience and enhance culture.

What if getting to go to the office was the coolest thing ever? What if people looked forward to being there, and felt inspired and energized by spending time in an actual work-related building?

To achieve this, we need to re-think our approach to employee experience and draw on some of the same inspiration that informs our customer experience. Recall the iconic luxury department stores of yesteryear – every touchpoint from the doorman to the displays was deliberate and designed to delight the patron.

Walking into that building was, from start to finish, a sensory experience that evoked feelings of aspiration and well-being.

Fast forward to the retail trends of today. In an age in which they can buy anything online, Gen Z still craves "experientalism": the sounds, smells and feelings that come with being in an actual store—and a seamless blend of their physical and virtual worlds.

Why can’t we apply the same principles of care and curation to our employees’ experience of coming to the office? How do we make the office magnetic? The key is in the shift from the companies’ perception of the office as a place where "work gets done" to the office as an experience —a place we get to go that is like nowhere else.

For many workers, deep thinking work is still best done at home, or another quiet place that enables concentration and focus. This place is rarely a noisy cubicle farm.

Creating connection and culture

The office, on the other hand, lends itself best to activities where spontaneity, serendipity, and the creative collision of ideas thrive. Employees are then able to harness this energy into helping to achieve an organization’s goals.

Some aspects of great work that most benefit from being done synchronously and IRL include, but are not limited to:

  • Collaboration & Innovation: Brainstorming, idea generation, connecting the dots, and real-time problem-solving. This process is organic and needs time, space and trust
  • Empathy: Connecting deeply with human colleagues, and building psychological safety with colleagues
  • Belonging: While the benefits of WFH for BIOPC employees have been significant, employee wellbeing is often enhanced by the sense of community and identity that comes from spending time with co-workers
  • Access & Opportunity: Face time with key stakeholders is an important aspect of career growth. If a senior leader doesn’t happen to hop into your Teams call, your great work is less likely to be visible to them
  • Culture: Understanding the social and professional norms of an organization is harder on a Zoom call and is often communicated walking to a meeting with a colleague or eating lunch with your team.

How can we best use our time together?

  • Create an immersive experience that takes employees out of the every day, and transports them to a world with its own rhythm, rituals, and routine. This might be a working destination retreat or a multi-day project event at the office
  • Incorporate the most constructive and culture-building principles of gamification into the office and in-person events to create strong bonds and maximize productivity outcomes
  • Create themes for specific times when people are in the office – focus employees’ attention and energy on the purpose of their time together.
  • Integrate external customer and internal employee events giving teams an opportunity to connect with how their work fits into the big picture
  • Prioritize strengthening relationships and enhancing personal and professional development when you’re together. Tending to employees’ overall well-being is a powerful way to create a positive association with being in the office
  • Leverage your leaders – employees wanting to grow their careers crave opportunities to increase their visibility, showcase their work, and build their brand with decision makers

Rely on the experts

The truth is that none of these ideas work as well implemented ad hoc as they do when woven into an overarching employee experience and communications strategy.

Creating this new world of work requires creativity and innovation. We need our best big picture thinkers, storytellers, and strategists leading the charge; best in class communications professionals, and a cross-functional team of experience design and implementation experts, including HR, IT, Operations, Change Management, DEI, and senior leaders.

The role of the office may be changing, but one thing hasn’t—employees need to feel seen, heard, and valued in order to do their best work.

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