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Opinion: Flexibility is key in the 'new normal' office

Truth Be Told

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I recently read a great book called, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.” Don’t you love the title? It’s written by the founders of Basecamp, a cloud-based project management tool we started using companywide at Springfield Business Journal about a year ago.

It was a quick read with simple yet radical ideas. One of those was to stop glorifying workaholism. Working more hours does not mean working harder or smarter. Yes! The book also is full of springboards to developing effective processes, cutting out time-sucks and giving people autonomy to do their best work.

I know many of you worked from home for some amount of time in the past 13 months. And while some are back in the office already, others are still navigating and negotiating what this new normal of work looks like. We are on that step at SBJ.

The blurred lines of home and work didn’t start in 2020, but it certainly went into hyperspeed. Kitchen tables became workspaces and Zoom created a new wardrobe: business on top, party on bottom.

So as many of us become vaccinated, COVID-19 cases cool down and we’re considering what work looks like, my No. 1 guidepost is that work shouldn’t look like what it did in early March 2020. What better time to try something new when you’re building from the ground up?

Over the past few months, I’ve been in process and technology/software and improvement land for our newsroom. We recently transitioned to Microsoft Office 365 Teams, which has solved problems, streamlined communication and moved us into the cloud.

Specific processes aside, it seems flexibility is going to be part of the office of the future. A hybrid work model, for one, is what a majority of employees desire. A Society for Human Resource Management survey of employees late last year found 55% said they prefer working remotely three days per week. Meanwhile, 68% of executives said workers should be in the office three days a week, citing company culture as something that needed to be guarded. So, there’s still many conversations to be had.

There’s some that lament what’s been lost over the past year of working remotely. I like to drill down on the why behind that. I find it’s often rooted in what’s familiar, not necessarily what’s most efficient or effective. When I think over the past year, I’m more excited considering what we’ve gained. In many ways, culture has improved because processes have improved.

Culture is not defined by a physical space, but by people and vision they rally around. With intentionality, I believe that can be created in a fully in-person, remote or hybrid model.

I do find value in co-workers physically being together and recognize some people prefer an environment where everyone is working under one roof. But while we have the chance, I’m excited to try out what a new model could look like.

Here’s some ideas from the SHRM for businesses to consider on a hybrid or flexible work model:

1. Job duties. The HR association says some employees need to be physically present within an office to collect mail or even work with sensitive company information. Meetings with clients and project collaboration also can bring employees into the office. But employees who primarily work by themselves at desks can easily work at home.

2. Personality. Some people thrive from strong relationships at work. The best candidates for remote work, the SHRM notes, are those who have passions or interests outside of the office.

3. Employee tenure or experience level. A new employee or one who’s been recently promoted may benefit from close connection to a supervisor on-site. Leaders need to be intentional about nurturing those relationships to avoid isolation.

4. Age. Studies find members of Generation Z generally prefer to work in the office, and a Fortune-SurveyMonkey poll conducted last summer found members of this generation say their productivity has dropped. Just another reason why communication is key.

5. Timing. Three-fourths of executives anticipate that at least half of their office employees will return by July, according to the SHRM. Yet, 61% of employees expect to spend half their time in the office by then. Employees working at home with school-age children also may want a slower return to the office.

A survey of staff and their needs seems like the logical best first step. Keeping up with the times as it relates to workplace flexibility isn’t easy, but it can make for a better office culture and boost retention and recruitment efforts. Have you embraced a hybrid model? I’d love to hear from you about what’s working and what’s not.

Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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