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BirdsEye View

earning the commute

 This research was reported on by Dan Bigman.  The article below contains some of his reporting as well as my own observations.

Most bank CEOs, while grateful that their team successfully operated their bank remotely for many months, are committed to return to the future and resume in-person office presence to the greatest extent practicable.  Cultural cohesion, new team member onboarding, innovative and collaborative practices and many other facets of bank leadership and processes have been challenged and strained by the remote working environment. Most banks I know are planning on an orderly return-to-the-office program while giving the work-at-home preferences a nod with some flexibility of office presence requirements. Many who sent their people home, now find it’s tough to get them back—at least without a fight. 

Today’s tight labor market makes it even harder to require employees to reintroduce commuting into their lives.  Many banks are seeing a wave of resignations when such requirements are imposed again.  Perhaps it’s time to try another way, one that’s more about selling and less about commanding? Allan Smith, chief revenue officer and Ron Martere, business group VP at office furniture maker Steelcase, shared insights about “earning the commute” of your workers when they’d rather stay home.

SteelCase surveyed about 58,000 people in 11 different countries to get a sense of where the world’s office denizens are when it comes to work and the workplace—what they want, what they don’t, and what it might take to lure them back in.

“When they first went home, people felt a certain way, they were really worried primarily about safety,” says Smith. “Then as the pandemic went on, they were thinking, hey, you know, it’s kind of a far commute…how do I make the office really worth the commute? And they shifted concerns from really less about safety and more about privacy issues. And then also secondarily about collaborating with their teams.”

Home-bound workers realized they are savings meaningful time by avoiding the commute, time they could share with family and the workplace as well.  They found that, in some cases, they could work with fewer interruptions and focus better.  They also realized that certain home chores, such as the laundry, for example, can be accomplished much more easily during work hours without impeding productivity. 

In addition, the work was getting done, and getting done well.  To everyone’s surprise, most banks pivoted to the new environment with alacrity and effectiveness, “Why change?”, asked those who prefer to work at home.

Employers’ challenge is to find ways to compete – and beat – the alternatives to returning to the office.  SteelCase had some thoughts.

“We believe that the workplace should be the best place to get work done,” says Martere. “You can get work done anywhere, but on balance, I want to come into my work, my office, because I’ll have access to colleagues, I’ll have the best technology, I can connect to the culture, I can learn, I can be a mentor, those type of things. And so we want to make sure it’s an attractive place where people want to be, not necessarily have to be.”

SteelCase shared takeaways from the conversation about what people are really looking for when they’re back in the office:

• They want to concentrate. “They’re primarily concerned with the ability to work without distraction,” says Smith. “One of the things they really appreciated being at home during the pandemic was the ability to focus. But oftentimes, if you don’t have a dedicated workspace, you might be sharing with multiple people or students that were learning from home, and they had less and less privacy. So, they want an equal amount of privacy to what they had at home. How do you deal with that—new solutions around acoustic privacy, visual privacy, psychological privacy to be able to help people be most productive?” AB:  Banks I know have developed a set of requirements for home office setup, which they audit prior to approving work-from-home situations. Some banks pay for the technology necessary to get the job done, others provide a stipend, and others leave it up to the employee to fund the expense.

• They want to collaborate. “People like to see other people, they like to connect with colleagues, and how do we help facilitate some of those connections? How do we help facilitate the meetings?” Says Smith. “What we see is a proliferation of meeting room spaces, as well as ancillary or kind of informal settings. And we see those throughout the floor plate, they used to maybe 30% of the floor plate pre-pandemic, we see a big shift to probably 50% to 60% or 70% in several cases now.” AB:  Technology companies have come to this realization over a decade ago, and banks are taking note.  The #1 concern CEOs express about remote work is the inability to collaborate and innovate.  Providing collaboration spaces is central to achieving this goal, and also supports what many employees prefer.

• They want hybrid meetings to not suck. “We’re thinking more like a movie director than maybe a facility manager” in designing rooms, says Martere. “In the past the facility managers might just put on a device, and you can be in a big vacuous room with poor acoustics and poor lighting and you just deal with it. Now we’re going to think that experience has to be engaging….it has to be easy to use—otherwise, people won’t do it. It’s got to be equitable. Let’s say there are three people here and we’re talking, you don’t feel like you’re the odd person out.”  AB:  We must adapt to this new environment!

• They want to belong. “People want a sense of belonging to an organization, and the workplace, the office, even if it’s poorly designed, is that place where you come together…people miss that,” says Martere. “What we’re seeing is, the companies that do have great environments that have better design biophilia, more thought goes into it. It’s really a hosted work experience, versus just, hey, here’s 1,000 people, you got 1,000 of this, it’s just more efficiency-based. They’re bringing their people back in a faster way because people miss that. You don’t necessarily miss sitting by yourself on a big bench somewhere with a couple of people. You do miss a nice, planned work environment.” AB:  Belonging is a primary human need.  It’s our responsibility to fulfill that need for our employees as an inducement to office presence.  Greater focus on mission, cross-pollination and workflows is a prerequisite to making return-to-the-office be a positive experience.  Some companies already have a strong culture in place that provides the fertile ground for belonging; others do not. Both need to become intentional about expressing their culture and values in the daily office routine and life.

• They want different things—based on age. “What we see is people who are under 30 years old are more likely to be in the office because they’re looking to create social connections and they’re also looking to create movement in their career,” says Smith. “People who are older than 50 are in the office because that’s what they were used to. They compartmentalize work in a way that basically said, ‘I’m going to work and I’m going to leave my home life for that work-life balance.’ But you see a big swath of folks in between—that 30 to 50 group—that are really enjoying working at home.” AB:  This is critical.  “One size fits all” simply doesn’t work in today’s world.  I'm not sure it ever worked.  Much like incentives do not appeal to all employees equally, so do the benefits of office work.  Customize your environment to the various work groups you have to ensure increased engagement and the results you’re looking for from this return to work.  Plus, for those who are happier working from home, find arrangements that will meet their needs as well as your prerequisites for the work elements that are best done together.

• They want social support. Those 30-to-50 year olds, “what they’re telling us from the research is they’re really struggling with things like child care, elder care,” says Smith. “They’re trying to create work-life balance. One of the top things from our research came out from women around the need for childcare on-site or someplace that they could get to quickly. I’d say that’s another thing in terms of services, other on-site services that are about work-life balance, little things like dry cleaning, the ability to drop off laundry.”  AB:  Employers can make a huge difference in their employees’ lives by handling these core issues.  New nationwide vendors have emerged who provide resources and support for both elder care and child care.  Avail yourself of these services.  Provide a health clinic on site if you have a sufficient critical mass of employees.  Have a fitness center and a cafeteria where possible.  Arrange for dry cleaning pickup and drop-off at your operations center or bank headquarters.  Many of the perceived benefits of working from home can be emulated- and even improved upon at the office. While costly, the payback in employee well-being and engagement should far exceed the cost.

• And, no surprise, more than anything, they want a great culture—and a decent boss. “As much as we love furniture,” says Martere, “you can have a beautifully designed space, but if the culture isn’t great, that will also be a detractor from people coming back to work for sure…. Post-pandemic, a lot of people are saying, ‘I’d like to work from home.’ What they’re really saying is, ‘I don’t like my boss or my culture, and I want to spend as much time away from that person as possible.’” AB:  This is a universal truth.

In summary, one way to combat the reluctance of large swaths of your workforce to return to the office is to make the office environment more attractive.  Particularly when it comes to work-life balance, major employers can make a meaningful positive difference in their employees’ lives by providing assistance and support for major life challenges as well as small annoyances, from childcare to prescription pickup and drop-off services.  Creativity, understanding and compassion are critical to get your team to come back to the office and be happy there.