30 / BUILDING DIALOGUE / December 2021 ELEMENTS Employee Experience What’s the Best Way to Return to Work? It All Depends E ven before the pan- demic, companies were taking closer, more objective looks at how to improve employee engagement within the workplace. Now, this topic is magnified as leaders deter- mine next steps for their businesses. As new territory for most businesses, many are still formulating plans for their work environments and fortunately, or un- fortunately, there is no evidence-based strat- egy or prescriptive solution. Companies must be thoroughly aware of their unique business needs, goals and desired employee workflows. While critical to take employee input into ac- count throughout the process, it’s important to keep in mind that rarely does a decision make everyone happy. Here are a few suggestions to help determine what modality of work – in office, remote or hybrid – will be the most effective for your company and lead to the highest level of em- ployee satisfaction: • People first – start with your employees. One of the best places to start when discussing a poten- tial return to the office is to survey employees and gauge comfort level for working in person. Create a list of challenges and opportunities for employ- ees working remotely vs. in the office, focusing on operational, as well as cultural ramifications. Consideration should be given to current as well as future employees. Leadership likely will have a different perspective from employees on how departments operate. Internal surveys allow the employee perspective to be factored into discus- sions. You never know, your own people may just surprise you with their unique perspectives and preferences. After taking an honest look at the information you’ve gathered, youmay decide a hybrid approach is the best option for your company. In this case, you need to further decide how much flexibility will be offered and to whom. For example, are man- agers expected to be in the office five days a week while more junior positions are only three? Will desks be designated for people who aren’t in the of- fice full-time? No matter what leadership decides, employees need to have a clear understanding of what the expectations are related to their role. One of the biggest conundrums for remote and even hybrid work is how to build culture virtually. Essentially all industries have seen unprecedented turnover rates throughout the pandemic. For many companies, this reality has brought a heightened awareness of the importance of interpersonal rela- tionship to a company’s success. As someone who joined the firm remotely during the pandemic, I understand this challenge. Many organizations have chosen to incorporate intentional social in- tegration for new employees. Despite being sched- uled, these social interactions provided employees with ownership in keeping the culture alive while helping new team members experience it. In my experience, this approach allowed me to meet a broader cross section of co-workers sooner than I might have otherwise. Susan Kohuth, ASID, LEED AP Senior Interior Designer, EUA Offering enclosed and open spaces in a variety of scales helps give employees the option to choose where they feel most comfortable and productive. For companies and organizations that operate best under in-person circumstances, some creativity may be required to enhance efficiency while ensuring employees feel safe and heard.