COVID surprise: Many people love working from home. Can employers live with that?

With Biden promising to distribute 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days of his administration, many employers around the country are asking the same question: When can we safely open our offices again?

In our work with dozens of the top tech start-ups, we’ve found that while 10 months of working from home has been soul crushing for many, it has actually been a joy for others. For every parent resenting having to juggle the three roles of childcare, teaching, and working, there is another who has loved the “quality time” with their kids. For every employee living alone who is depressed from the isolation and misses his colleagues, there is another who has enjoyed learning new skills during her alone time

The truth is many American workers have actually grown to LOVE working from home, and they intend to demand more flexibility from employers who are hopeful to see them back in their cubes come springtime.

More people are wanting to work from home

In a recent survey of over 17,000 workers, only 23.9% said they would “Rarely” or “Never” would want to work from home post-COVID, while 27.3% said they would prefer to work from home 5 days a week. The remaining 48.9% said they’d like to work from home 1-4 days a week.

So, what do we do when over a quarter of our workforce no longer wants to work from the office? How do we integrate them into workflows and meetings where a majority of workers are in the same room together? How do we avoid making those who choose to work from home feel like second class citizens?

Zoom meeting on Feb. 10, 2021, in Richmond, Virginia.

These are just some of the myriad challenges that face employers as we begin thinking about opening our offices again. In our work helping dozens of the fastest growing startups think through these questions, here are a few solutions that hold promise:

1) More standups, fewer meetings

The whole idea of “Standups” came into the lexicon in the mid-90s when leaders at Japanese behemoths like Fuji, Canon, and Honda realized they needed more agility and less cumbersome processes. The idea is having daily, short, focused meetings to address priorities and blockers.

Unfortunately, in the 25 years since then, Standups have fallen out of vogue and have been replaced by a mind numbing stream of project management meetings — meetings that are especially mind-numbing for team members not in the room.

We won’t waste time detailing how to run effective standups here; Google has dozens of resources for you. What we will say, however, is that the most effective companies we work with have embraced the standup again: 15 minutes of priority setting and rapid decision-making, and all parties go back to doing actual work. It’s high time we dispel the myth that endless meetings are accomplishing anything.

2) Proactively include people who are not in the room

When we (used to) go to rock concerts, the most expensive tickets were always for the seats closest to the action. Many people think it’s because one can see better, but it’s actually because it feels better. Being closer to the musicians makes you feel like you are more emotionally connected. The lead singer might even look you in the eye and smile.

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Same goes for work meetings. When you are physically in the room, you feel more connected. When you are the person on the Zoom connection, you are likely to feel forgotten. That’s why just like the lead singer will walk all the way around the stage pointing to different sections of the stadium to make as much of a connection with members of the audience that are in the nose-bleeds, so much the leader of a meeting with team members at varying degrees of proximity proactively include people who are not in the room.

This may seem obvious, but it is all-too-often overlooked when there is “heat” in the room and people are starting to get excited about an idea. That is precisely the moment when the facilitator needs to turn everyone’s attention to the faces on the screen or the voices on the phone and say, “Let’s hear from a few other people…Sally in Denver, what do you think?”

What works for you?

3) Rethink team design

Let’s be honest — no amount of standups or inclusive facilitation will completely level the playing field for team mates who are IN the room vs those who are not. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton proclaimed, “I’ve got to be in the room where it happens.”

If certain teammates will literally never or at best infrequently be “in the room where it happens,” maybe it is time to change what happens in which rooms. To accomplish this, many companies are redesigning their team compositions so that they have “all remote” project teams and “all in-office” project teams. This removes the “we just jumped into a quick meeting and forgot to call you” problem that always arises when a few people are remote, and allows managers to allocate work to teams based on “collaboration requirements.”

This means that those teams that are physically co-located may get the projects that require rapid decision-making, pivoting, and intense collaboration. Remote teams may be assigned the longer-cycle projects that require equally or even more important “deep work,” but fewer quick decisions and alignment meetings.

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While it may be impossible to perfectly integrate in-person and remote teams and ensure those workers who chose to continue working from home never feel out of the loop, there are measures we can take to reduce that outcome. Hitting reset on our meeting duration and cadence, being more proactively inclusive of those not in the room, and rethinking our team design are three great places to start.

What is working for you at your firm?

Edward Sullivan and John Baird are respectively the CEO and chairman of Velocity Group, an executive coaching firm. They are also authors of the upcoming book “The Power of Insight,” which will be released by Harper Collins in 2021.

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