By Saydeah Howard
Over the past two months all of us have seen our personal and professional lives dramatically upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. My conversations with portfolio companies confirm that as the crisis has evolved, we’ve all been thrust into similarly uncharted territory. First there was the transition from shock to acceptance with the realization that yes, this is real, and we need to respond. Those first few weeks in mid-March were focused on employees – were they safe? Did they have the resources they needed to work remotely? Could companies find ways to maintain connections amongst a dispersed workforce? Ultimately, what we found was heartening: even those companies who initially found themselves completely in the dark managed to adapt with relative speed.
Then came the initial stimulus package, and the focus shifted to the viability of accessing those funds and evaluating the impact they could have on a given organization. Now, post-stimulus, we find ourselves assessing what it means to return to work, even if returning to normal might not yet be possible. Instead, we’ll be forging a new future, which may mean fundamentally changing our lives in order to work and live in this new world. As I share my findings with you now I am thankful to do so from a stronger position than where we were in March. We now have the luxury of time and a little foresight, so let’s do what we previously could not. As we prepare to chart a new path to physical offices, let us be intentional as we plan, prepare, and get ahead of this as much as possible.
First, know that there will be different reactions when local and state shelter-in-place mandates are lifted. Whether this excites or perturbs you, recognize that others may not share your feelings, whatever they may be. Some people will be excited to simply leave the house again and they will immediately want to return to life as it once was. They will want to work in a physical office, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, and generally be among others. These are the people for whom this period has been challenging in many unexpected ways, not just the social disconnection of not seeing friends and family, but also the added frustration of trying to parent and work at the same time. Add to that the mental exhaustion of all this instability, along with the anxiety of possibly contracting a life-threatening virus. This is the “first in” group, the first ones back in the office, wondering where everyone else is and eager to engage in as many past social norms as possible. In practice, this will likely mean in-person team gatherings, socially distanced group lunches, and in-person chats, with or without a mask.
On the other side of the spectrum is the “last back” group: those that still don’t want to leave the house, even if the shelter-in-place mandates in their area have been lifted. They will want to continue working remotely for a variety of reasons, including continued fear of the virus or the simple fact that they enjoy working from home. During this period many people have gone beyond making the best of things – they’ve created a home environment that is not only productive but pleasant. They feel they have everything they need and are not eager to go back to their commutes, their office lives, or generally disrupt the new work-life balance they’ve achieved. They want to hold onto a world where everyone has the freedom to work where they want, when they want, as long as productivity is maintained.
Lastly, as you may expect, there will be many people in the middle. This “bit of both” group will want to be back in a physical office occasionally, but still desire the flexibility to work from home when needed. They have seen that they can be productive outside of the office, but don’t necessarily want to commit to working remotely full time.
To address these three different perspectives, companies must remain flexible and recognize that there is no single solution. When planning company meetings or gatherings, it will be necessary to adjust various policies while considering the “first in,” “last back,” and “bit of both” groups.
When onboarding new employees, don’t assume that they fall into one group. Ask them how they prefer to work and be clear with them upfront about how the organization will address their particular situation. Not all roles can be performed remotely, and not all individuals work well in remote environments, so take the time to determine what will work for the job and the person. For day-to-day logistics, create materials that can be shared both physically and electronically. Adjust your company rituals as needed to be able to meet the needs of all three groups. If you’ve fully transitioned to remote in the past few months, you may have to take some time to think about what a new middle ground will look like.
Company events will have to evolve to include both in-person and remote participants. From company meetings where information is disseminated, to social gatherings designed to increase engagement and camaraderie, think of various ways to include everyone. Regardless of how they are participating in the event, on site or via technology, every member of your team should feel involved in what’s happening. Innovate to find methods of making everyone at the company feel like a part of the team.
Remember, this is a new beginning. Take the opportunity to create something new, rather than just adjusting past behaviors. The silver lining of all this difficulty is the freedom to redesign your work culture from the ground up. In doing so you will discover approaches to work and life you never considered before.
Saydeah Howard is the Chief Talent Officer at IVP, a later-stage venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, CA.
Find more resources at ivp.com/covid