It almost feels like just as soon as we all got comfortable with this whole “new normal” of working from home, many of us will soon be shifting back to work in the office at least some of the time. We sat down with Sarah Milstein, VP of Engineering at ConvertKit, as part of our Lead Time Live series to discuss what opportunities lie ahead and how teams can use time now to start adopting more effective, inclusive ways of working when we come back together — in whatever capacity that looks like.
Here’s a quick look at different ways companies might approach their return plans:
Different approaches will obviously benefit different teams, and there’s no right or wrong way to do this. A lot of it depends on things like team size, geographical location, and team and personal preferences.
From years of experience leading hybrid teams though, Sarah says a model that mixes flexibility with some structure around office time generally works well for most teams.
“What I’ve seen to be most successful are companies where you can make a choice [to work from home or the office] and the systems are set up where you can do that most days, but there are also clear agreements about when you come in,” she explains, “whether you have team days that are Monday and Wednesday or the whole company comes a couple of days a week.”
Sarah says this model works well because it accounts for two important things: giving people the flexibility to work how they’re most productive, and prioritizing spending time together when situations require it (like for meetings or team building activities).
She also cautions about choosing a model where it’s up to team leads or managers to decide for their function (rather than the org as a whole), because this can create unintentional inequity depending on how teams are made up.
“I think it’s important to raise the question of equity now,” she shares. “We’ve had everyone working from home, in most cases very effectively, for a long period of time now. We have an opportunity to ask ‘What is it that we’re optimizing for?’ And what have we gained in this time? What have we learned? What have we lost? How can we be careful about accounting for those things rather than just defaulting back to where we were.”
If, as a manager or team lead, you find yourself in a position where you’re being asked to set the policy for your team — Sarah offers a few pieces of advice:
Remember back to the spring of 2020? Yes, the initial move to remote work was jarring. But chances are your newly remote team got some real, tangible benefits out of it too — whether that was more focus time, greater empathy and understanding for one another, new collaboration tools and processes that seem to work well, or new ways of checking in with each other that folks actually really love.
Now, fast forward to today. Rather than thinking about this upcoming shift back to the physical office as a challenge or pain — why not reframe return plans as an opportunity? A chance to help us move away from some of our autopilot norms around working in in-person offices and more intentionally decide how we want to work together.
Sound exciting? We think so too. Here are some ideas Sarah shared around hybrid work planning to help your team get ready for this next new normal.
Managers should be having regular 1:1s with folks, finding out where they’re challenged, where they’re thriving, and where they need extra help or visibility. This should be the case always, but is especially important when going through a big shift. Keeping communication channels open, checking in with each other proactively, and ensuring remote folks feel equally supported as in-office ones will be critical.
Sarah recommends trying out new things and beginning to make changes now, so you’ll already have some strong foundations in place and the team will better know what to expect. Going back to the office isn’t a new thing by any means, but eliminating as many of the unknowns as possible can help folks feel more prepared for the transition.
Sarah pointed out that hybrid work models aren’t all that new either — many companies have had satellite offices or remote employees for years. She recommends looking to these companies for inspiration as we move into this phase.
If you’re not sure where to start thinking about your return to office plans, Sarah’s got a few ideas. She recommends using this time to revisit old norms and challenge existing beliefs and ways of doing things. Here are a few examples.
“It’s less of a distraction,” she explains. “In the office, there’s usually quite a lot of focus around a few people and speculation on what they’re doing and thinking. It’s kind of a waste of energy.”
As we’re gearing up to return to the office or a hybrid model of working, now’s a great time to start thinking about the shifts your team might make in the coming months. Rather than simply change what we’re doing now though, Sarah says teams should use this moment for experimentation.
“Experimenting and trying new things is a new opportunity and possibility that we have now,” she shares. “This wasn’t something that came up as much when we were just working as we always had in our day-to-day.”
Got a new idea or something you’d like to try? Share it with your entire team, explain your hypothesis around it, and give a clear timeline for when you’ll check back in around how things are working.
“When people are given an end date to something — “we’ll check back in 3 months from now” — they’re a lot more open to trying something new,” Sarah explains.
The shift back to an office or hybrid work environment is full of opportunity, but it would be unrealistic to say there won’t be challenges ahead of us too. Sarah shared what she believes will be some of our greatest challenges going forward, and some ideas for how teams might think about and approach them.
When we don’t see each other in person, it’s really difficult to make personal connections. Facetime really makes a difference for a lot of people. Without in-person facetime, it’s harder to read how people are doing, get to know each other, and feel like you’re part of something.
How to solve for it
“On a personal and business level, knowing whether people are having a good or bad day helps,” she says. “When someone’s not as responsive or short, you have that context so you don’t have to worry if there’s subtext you’re missing.”
It’s hard to collaborate on certain kinds of work when you’re not together. In particular, generative work and things that need group focus and attention, like strategic planning. These activities typically require long chunks of time together to explore and dive deep into things, but let’s face it — nobody wants to be on a 6-hour Zoom.
How to solve for it
Depending on the level of planning, you might repeat these spaced-out planning sessions over the course of a few days or a week.
Trust doesn’t come quite as naturally when you can’t directly see the person you’re working with. Managers might worry their direct reports aren’t getting work done, or reports might worry their work is going unnoticed.
How to solve for it
With a little foresight and planning, your team can solve for these common pitfalls before making the actual shifts back to the office or a hybrid environment.
To be a successful team during this time of transition will mean to trust each other, be open to trying new things, and lean into consistent communication. Effective communication and regular feedback is always essential — even more so as you lead your team through change.
As you gear up for the new, new normal, unite around a smooth transition as your common goal and hold yourself and team members accountable towards reaching it together. Schedule regular check-in moments where everyone can share their feedback and ideas, and know that the process will be an interactive one. Just like the transition to remote work — you probably won’t get it all right on the first try. But you will learn and grow a lot as a team along the way.