“It is time to re-imagine what the workplace is for,” writes Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom, on Haymarket Media’s Campaign site. “If you took someone who might have known Charles Dickens and, through the power of time-travel, transported them to an office in 2019, undoubtedly they would be shocked and surprised by mobile phones, computers and the number of women around. They would be less shocked by the overall look of the place: lots of people with their heads down at desks working away, with some managers walking around occasionally to see what they were up to.”
Up until now, most of what we have read takes the form of, “when offices reopen…,” “people going back to normal…,” etc. But as spring turns to summer turns to fall, new conversations are taking place, more focused on the realities of the new normal—where people are not returning to offices until at least next summer and as some do, many others will continue to work from home.
I spoke to Erin Hallstrom last week, an incredible, do-everything person for Putman Media—SEO, podcasts, she created their groundbreaking Influential Women in Manufacturing program—and she told me that half of their staff had been working remotely before this, including her. And she’s always felt more productive.
“For 12 years, I’ve always had a digital job; at 10 o’clock at night I might have an idea [to write down]. If there’s a huge fire at a factory [at any time], someone needs to write about it. Why do I have to go into the office?”
Hallstrom believes, however, that there will still be a need for in-person collaboration. “I used to go in two days a week, with digital folks similar to me. On one of those days, three or four of us would sit down and put our heads together. The people I’ve been closest to, we haven’t seen each other, but, of course, we still have conversations. I miss you guys.”
I remember a couple years ago interviewing Cassandra Farrington, CEO of Marijuana Business Daily. They figured out quickly that some face-to-face communication was needed from their remote team and decided to require people coming in for about 20-25 hours a week. “The rest of the time, as I tell my team, I couldn’t care if you are working from the surface of the moon, so long as the work is getting done to high effectiveness.”
I think you’ll see some of that in the new normal, with even less hours required in the office, but still some hopes to get people in for a day or two a week—while also finding better, more participatory technology for those working remotely. Back in October, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, who was already embracing working from home, said that they had “installed some large screens in conference rooms [to accommodate remote staff]. There’s a marked difference in how that person participates. And how the people feel; it feels like that person was in the meeting room. It really does make a significant difference.”
But as Unerman relates, having people come in to just put their head down and work won’t make sense anymore.
“A hybrid model of remote and flexible working, with offices re-imagined for the better is likely,” she writes. “These experiments are under way, and they do raise another question—what is office culture without everyone in the office?”
Here’s how she finishes. “In a great culture each person enhances each other’s performance. Helping the collective is rewarded. Without everyone in the office most of the time, leadership of a good culture is even more crucial. And in a good culture there are cultural leaders and advocates in every single seat, wherever that seat is located.”
In April, Steve Cody, founder and CEO of PR and marketing firm Peppercomm, spoke with Ragan’s Diane Schwartz, who credited him with building a team culture, steeped in tactical communications that especially helps in these precarious times.
“It will be a foreign experience; how do we ease that transition [back to the office]?” he asked then. “This idea of re-boarding—not onboarding, but bringing them back—we’re working on that now.”
Odds are he’s now working on Plan C.