Tuesday, June 8, 2021, will go down in our agency's history as the day we came back to our downtown Minneapolis office. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be a big deal. But the COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that these aren't ordinary times. Some of our small business peers in the Twin Cities may question why we chose to return to a central office before so many others have dared to do so.
After all, hadn't we discovered that remote working, well, works?Employers embraced technology that empowered our employees to work from home — sparking productivity, increasing efficiency and empowering us all to get the work done. But at what cost?
What's been missing is the humanity of being at work. You've no doubt read about the rise in mental health issues stemming from pandemic-induced isolation, including a rise in depression and substance abuse. As people, we need to share our experiences, to share our load with others. Especially at a design agency like CBX, our workplace is a collective, and we believe that connecting with the lives of others is what matters.
We need these intangibles, and the shared workplace is an effective place to nurture them. As Lee Schafer mentioned in his June 6 column in the Star Tribune ("Hybrid shouldn't be the worst of both"), "the best workplaces … have people connecting all the time with each other across the organization chart."
It wasn't an easy decision to come back downtown — for now, just three days a week. As a business owner, I read articles that underline how much employees — particularly Gen Z employees — welcomed work-from-home. We listened to podcasts and researched with our HR director the right way to have our employees come back to the office. We formed a task force to explore potential issues around return to work (i.e., should we mandate vaccinations or not?), with the No. 1 priority being that we wouldn't bring anyone back until we knew everyone would be safe.
We also considered the continuum of emotions our employees were expressing, from "I'm sick of sitting at my kitchen table" to "I'm not ready to get back into the world." We recognize these are valid feelings. We had to determine a balance between what was right for employees and, frankly, what was right for the business.
The decision to return to our office at this time was right for the greater good of our agency. We're a small office with 26 employees in Minneapolis, and I know that we're better together. In fact, yesterday, within eight minutes of coming into the office, I heard laughter. I heard others exclaim, "Oh, the music is on. It's so great to have that vibe!"
The emotions were all there, but, at the end of the day, our senior designer Shawn Harrington said it best: "I was uneasy about coming to work, and unsure that the benefits of working in the office would exceed the benefits of working from home. But, in just the past few days, we've ironed out a few kinks and are in the process of building the best of both worlds. Besides, it's just nice to talk to people."
To employers still trying to decide whether or not to bring their people back, let me say this: It's not as hard as you might think. We all left our offices for 14 months to work in a way we never had before. Coming back together, at what was once a familiar place, should be far easier than that. CBX client manager Margaret Couture summed it up beautifully: "The weirdest thing about coming back is that it's not weird."
Keep in mind that, as a leader, you have to inspire the return to office. You can't force it. I'd also advise other downtown businesses to view productivity as more than work outputs. While working remotely can result in a great deal of productivity in terms of quantity of completed projects, when I see everyone together as a community at the office, I know that's just as productive in terms of nurturing our corporate culture.
Finally, we business owners need to realize that we can never make everyone happy. Even at CBX, each of our employees is in a different place, emotionally, about returning to work. Ultimately, I hope their desire to be a part of this agency will motivate them to give the hybrid model a try because most are already finding that they enjoy being together and recognize what that adds to their lives. And, if you communicate a solid rationale as to why it makes business sense to return, you'll come out of this pandemic stronger than before.
Nancy Brown is managing partner at CBX, a brand strategy and design agency with headquarters in Minneapolis and New York.