COVID-19 made people rethink everything about how, why, and where they work. Companies should be thinking about that, too.
Over the past few weeks, I've heard of several outdoor companies starting to roll out their return-to-office plans. They seem to span the entire spectrum from no more office, 100% remote, to mandated, butts-in-seats five days a week. (I have thoughts on the latter, which can mostly be summed-up by me shouting "WHY??" into the dark abyss for eternity, but I'll talk more about that in a minute).
As someone who has spent my entire career tapped-into the world of workforce development, and more recently, fully entrenched in workforce development issues in the outdoor industry, I find the ongoing discourse around "how the pandemic will change work forever," fascinating and exciting. This is a moment of incredible disruption that presents us with the chance to create seismic shifts in the world of work, the likes of which we haven't seen since the post-World War II era. But while the conversation feels almost inescapable in a variety of industries from tech to healthcare to finance, when I look at the outdoor industry, things seems to be eerily quiet.
Don't get me wrong, I am sure these discussions are happening in certain circles and small pockets, and are front of mind for HR professionals, whose inboxes will be on the frontlines when leadership hands-down their return-to-office plans. But this moment is too big and too important for this conversation to be happening underneath the surface, or only in certain and specific silos. So, as more and more outdoor companies start to think (or rethink) their plans, I'm sharing my thoughts, perspectives, and (hopefully) helpful suggestions for how to think about and prepare for these difficult and powerful decisions.
1. First answer, how and why, then where
In the vast and varied conversation around return-to-office policies, one common refrain is that decisionmakers often place too much consideration on the component of where people work, at the expense of considering the more critical components of how and why people work.
"Productivity is purpose and process, not place."
"If we frame the ‘back to the office’ conversation as purely logistical, we risk not clearly communicating the stakes of this moment and the opportunities presented by trying to rethink how we work. There’s a real demand for workplace change — but a small window of possibility to enact that change. And it will require us to focus on the how — and not the where," writes former New York Times opinion writer, Charlie Warzel in his latest Substack article "What the Return to Office Fight is Really About."
As renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant puts it, "Productivity is purpose and process, not place." But in a world of scary decisions, where is often the easiest question to answer, and so it's the one we gravitate toward first. Without, of course, considering if the where is a necessary component to the how and why. Are you creating a return-to-office policy because people need to be in the office to complete their tasks? Or are you creating a return-to-office policy because the office exists and you feel like you should probably fill it with people?
Based on the large percentage of companies choosing a hybrid return-to-office model, conceptualizing work without a physical space is a difficult thing to wrap our brains around. And that's ok, but it's absolutely something we should examine critically while making return-to-office decisions.
2. Flexibility is now an expectation, not a perk
In the before times, flexibility at work was largely a fringe benefit. Certainly, outdoor companies had a reputation of being more flexible than others. But now that we've all spent the last 18 months cobbling our work, home, and family lives together into a semi-symbiotic menagerie of sorts, going back to how things were before feels, for most people, untenable. As Adam Grant succinctly put it, "Flexibility is here to stay. Those who reject it may not be."
This moment is an organizational marshmallow test, and many organizations are eating the first marshmallow without hesitation.
And yet, there will be companies who do reject it. They're the ones currently implementing mandated and closely monitored, five-day in-the-office work weeks. They're the ones that make me want to shout "WHY??" into the ether until I pass out. Perhaps you are thinking, "That's a pretty intense, visceral reaction, don't you think you're being hyperbolic?" And my answer is absolutely not. Because it signals a regressive approach to the future of work. In many cases, it's an attempt to achieve short-term comfort by returning to "the way we've always done things." This moment is an organizational marshmallow test, and many organizations are eating the first marshmallow without hesitation.
The forward-thinking approach is to figure out how your organization can effectively and equitably build flexibility into its culture. How will you put inherent trust in your employees to do their work when and where it makes sense for them? How will you support managers that view flexibility as a threat to productivity? How will you help young employees develop the skills they need to manage their time effectively? These are difficult questions, but they're questions that need to be answered in service of bettering and sustaining the future of your organization. Or to bring the metaphor full-circle, they're questions that need to be answered to unlock the whole plate of marshmallows.
3. Return-to-office decisions are diversity, equity, and inclusion decisions
In reality, every company decision is a diversity, equity, and inclusion decision and should be viewed as such, but the choice to return to the office or forego the office entirely is positioned to powerful and perhaps unanticipated impacts.
50% of Black workers surveyed experienced an increase in their sense of workplace belonging after starting to working from home.
Just last week, the New York Times reported that women of color, especially, are dreading the return to the office, citing that a year of remote work has given them a reprieve from daily microagressions, instances of cultural bias, and feelings of being physically or emotionally unsafe. Furthermore, a recent study out of Slack think tank Future Forum, revealed that 50% of Black workers surveyed experienced an increase in their sense of workplace belonging after starting to working from home.
At the heart of that increased sense of belonging? Perhaps, as Charlie Warzel points out, remote work's ability to collapse monocultures and disrupt the workplace norms that, "were designed by and still benefit a specific worker profile: white, male, educated, middle-class, congenial, sociable, and able to delegate obligations outside of the office to others."
4. Heed the lessons of early decision-makers
It's no secret that the outdoor industry moves at a slower pace than industries like tech or finance. And while that slower pace has some downsides, in this moment, it provides one very bright upside: The opportunity to watch and learn from early decision-makers.
Obviously, return-to-office decisions should take into account your company's unique people, values, and long-term vision for itself. But being aware of the policies that other companies are putting into place, and the response from their employees, will give you the tools you need to avoid some missteps or oversights.
The Apple saga, wherein CEO Tim Cook released the company's hybrid policy on a Tuesday, and by Friday had received a letter from 80+ employees pushing back on the decision, is a perfect example, and gives return-to-office eager leaders a great view into the very real questions and concerns that remote-loving employees have about hybrid environments.
5. There will be turnover
Now is the time to beef-up your succession plans, rework your onboarding program, and start developing your existing workforce.
You must accept that whatever you decide, you are going to lose employees because of it. Now, I would argue that companies who choose to give more flexibility and autonomy to workers will see less turnover, and there is certainly data to back-up that assertion, but whatever you choose to do or not do, it is going to be out of alignment for some people. The best thing you can do is accept it and prepare for it. Now is the time to beef-up your succession plans, rework your onboarding program, and start developing your existing workforce. Which brings me to my final point...
6. It's time to re-invest in your employees
When the world turned upside down in March of 2020, companies either pressed pause on their professional development budgets, or reallocated that line entirely just to stay afloat. But today, the outdoor industry is looking at a really impressive rebound. And with the above-mentioned inevitable turnover creating a need for a strong, internal workforce pipeline, the desire to re-engage employees after a tumultuous year, and the need to add unique employee benefits to woo top talent, now is the time to re-invest in employee development programs.
Yes, the ROI of L+D can be difficult to quantify. But we know that a strong L+D program can and should play a strategic role in critical business functions, like: Attracting and retaining talent, motivating and engaging employees, developing people capabilities, building an employer brand, and one that is especially near and dear to outdoor businesses' hearts, creating a values-based culture. All of which are coming into focus as top priorities for companies as they recover from the pandemic.
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We have a powerful opportunity in front of us to take big risks that shape the world of work and the outdoor industry for the foreseeable future and I don't want to see us squander it in the rush to "get back to normal." The normal we knew doesn't exist anymore anyway, so let's get to work building a better one.