When Covid hit, there was only one responsible path going forward: safety first. We closed the doors and went fully remote. We prioritised the health of our staff, our clients, and our community.
That change brought another responsibility: to learn as much as we could from employees, to ask what they learned about work, and to respond thoughtfully and decisively.
So we did. We surveyed our team on what was worse and what was better about working outside the office. We polled employees on how they were feeling about communication with managers and teams, workload, stressors, joys, fears, and how many days each week they wanted to spend in the office when it was safe to be back. No optimal number emerged, but it was clear the majority wanted some sort of flexible option, and only 1% wanted to go back full-time. I totally get it. Having had the time in the past 18 months to flex work and life as needed, use my commute time for workouts and wellness, or have my children say, “Mom, I know we can’t bother you when you’re in a meeting when we get home from school, but it’s just nice to know you are here when we walk in,” I’ve not only adapted to it, I’ve appreciated it.
People also acknowledged that they missed many things about the office and it had taken on new meaning. For some, the office was a respite from home (toddlers, noisy roommates, isolation) – or at least a change of scenery. Many said that client meetings were better at the office (and we know our clients love visiting our pad). For me, it’s not having to have competing conference calls with my husband or hide away to hear over the kids’ (often loud) shenanigans. But the biggest boon to having an office was that people saw it as a place of creativity and collaboration. Nearly 70% of those surveyed said collaboration was what they wanted in our office of tomorrow.
With this feedback, it was time to hatch a plan. Our cross-functional, multilevel Future of Work task force got to work. We considered the pros and cons of all of the models. Fully back in the office? Mandating everyone to come in a certain number of days a week? Closing the office and going entirely remote? Allowing people to choose how they want to work and need to work?
In a creative client-service environment, we have all kinds of days. Days we need to think a lot and write things. Days we need to research. Days we need to collaborate and solve problems. Days we need to talk it out. Days we need to present to clients. We have always believed that our employees have to have autonomy and latitude. If you want creativity, you have to encourage people to stray outside the bounds of conventionality, right? They have to take risks, test limits. Some employers can’t wait to get their employees back into the office under the watchful eye of management, measuring productivity in 8-5 schedules. But the pandemic taught our company that employees were accountable even when the guardrails disappeared. The office of tomorrow doesn’t need to be a holding tank that defines the location and rhythm of work. It needs to be something that enhances work – if and when we need whatever the work environment can provide.
Based on all of these inputs, we chose a model based on trust and accountability that allows true flexibility. It’s called ‘Work Where You Need To’. We believe in trusting people and teams to do what they need when they need to do it. They have earned the right. We have launched award-winning campaigns, won new business, and won ‘Best Places to Work’ awards all while fully remote – during a scary pandemic. Imagine what we can do without the pall of a pandemic hanging over us. Imagine what we can do when we do choose to be together. Working where you need to when you need is real flexibility, not mandated flexibility.
Since we launched our model, the nation continues to be on a Covid see-saw. From fully vaccinated confidence to the potential need for booster shots – maybe? From no masks to masks again. We learned that when things felt better, they might change again.
The beauty of our ‘Work Where You Need To’ model is that it allows for flexibility in times of ambiguity but also gives people something to plan on at the same time.
Our office is still there and is open to those who need to work there – with masks and proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test right now – depending on the current CDC advice. The rooftop views of the Minneapolis skyline are still amazing and the free La Croix is still cold. And people will be going in based on their comfort level but also with some new superpowers we’ve built together during this work revolution.
We like to be there. We like to be together. But we also don’t need to be there every day. So when we thought about the best ways to use our brick-and-mortar space most optimally, we realised we wanted the office to be a place where we go to do extraordinary things. The office should be a place of unique experiences, peak performances, and compelling connections, which is why we are remaking our office into a campus-like environment where staff can meet to do group work, have quiet library time, or use the magical technologies of our content lab. You shouldn’t dread going into the office because it’s expected. You should relish it because it’s your choice, your chance to discover something unexpected.
Our Work Where You Need To policy allows us to express our culture like never before. It was never about a place, of course. It was always about people. It’s 100% the people.
Julie Batliner is president at Carmichael Lynch