Return to the Office: Figuring Out Our New Normal

In March 2020, we were all caught unprepared for the lockdown that forced us to reinvent, on the fly, how we worked, lived and socialized. At first we thought it was temporary, never believing it would stretch into 2021. We adapted quickly, changing our lifestyle to make ourselves safe and reinventing our agency as a virtual workplace, developing tools and techniques to deliver virtual services to our clients. Video conferencing was no longer relegated to the workplace, but embraced as a way to maintain relationships with friends and family as well. In addition to protecting us, masks became fashion accessories, even promotional items.

Over a year later, we are beginning to open back up. Unexpectedly, the return to normality could be more complicated than the original shutdown. The CDC surprised everyone, including local health departments, with its guidance that the vaccinated no longer needed to mask, indoors or out, creating confusion as well as joy. If you are a parent whose child is under 12, how do you require your kid to mask without modeling that behavior even if you are vaccinated? If you are a retailer, restaurant or event forum, how do you know who is vaccinated and who isn’t? Will the honor system work? Is it your responsibility to police that?

For those of us who have operated virtually this past year, the challenge is the massive change in workplace expectations. We discovered that we can be very productive working from home. The commuters gained back valuable time and flexibility enabled a greater degree of work-life balance. No one wants to return to the old nine to five, five day work week at the office. Most are comfortable with returning to work for two to three days a week but there are a few for whom a return to the office is absolutely not in the cards.

Hybrid is our answer, but what does it mean? We have more questions than answers at this point. We want our staff to have the freedom to develop their own schedules but we need to be able to serve our clients, so what are the parameters? How do we ensure that those who choose to work primarily at home do not experience bias by being out of sight/out of mind? It’s an issue that affects everything from video conferencing to promotions. Do we treat junior staff differently because we feel they will benefit more from a workplace environment? What about vaccines? Are they going to be required? We are not the only ones asking. Fortunately, as part of PROI Worldwide, the leading global network of independent public relations agencies, we have access to lots of very smart people who are also dealing with these issues.

In addition to rethinking workplace roles, practices and processes, what does hybrid mean to our company culture? Critical to retaining and attracting staff, maintaining our culture has been of paramount importance. It will require more effort as we move into the great hybrid unknown.

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