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How we’re facing the challenge of getting people back to the office

In November, Knak will be moving into a new 17,000-square-foot headquarters in Ottawa.

It’s a milestone for us, considering that we’ve had a real office for less than two years.

Naturally, we want our employees to use that new office space.

But in the post-pandemic world, getting employees to work in an office is not a given. People have gotten used to remote working; some of our employees prefer it. And we’ve hired from all over, so many of our employees don’t live within commuting distance.

Like many other companies, Knak is confronted with a new reality. While we have clear ideas about how we would like things to unfold, we also realize we will have to adjust our plans along the way.

We’re implementing a hybrid work model

Once we move into the new office, we will ask that all employees who live within commuting distance come to the office at least three days a week.

This was not an easy decision to make. Up to now, partly because we opened our office during the pandemic, we’ve been a ‘come to the office if you want to’ kind of place. We have people who come in very often, and others who have spent very little time in the office.

But pandemic restrictions have faded, so there are no longer public health mandates to keep employees working remotely. I strongly believe there are benefits to people working together in the same physical space, so I want people to come in.

The big question for us (and for all employers) is: Do you mandate people to come in? Or do you give them the choice?

Companies are now in the process of making their decisions known. 

For example, Apple recently announced that employees must be in the office three days a week. In June, Tesla told employees to spend 40 hours a week in the office – or quit. And Google began phasing in a hybrid office work policy last April.

We have chosen a hybrid work model, which I believe allows both collaboration and concentration.

We’re consciously working to make the new office attractive

If there’s one thing that’s changed since the start of the pandemic, it’s that the office now needs to be a place employees WANT to come to.

So we are making sure that the new office is both pleasant and conducive to work.

For example, our business development team is on the phone all day talking to prospective customers. So to keep them from bothering others, we’re making sure there’s a separate area for them to work in.

And feedback we’ve received from our current office shows that people like to have a quiet space to work in, so we will have soundproof pods people can book when they want to minimize distractions. And speaking of soundproof, we are building a podcast and recording studio in the new office to encourage people to create new digital content.

Our new office will also include areas where we can bring the whole company together, as well as purpose-built spaces for collaboration.

Altogether, it should be a place people enjoy coming to.

We believe that a good office culture has to be part of the attraction 

I know from experience that a place with a weak or deficient office culture is not a pleasant place to work in. That’s why I have put a lot of effort into making sure that Knak has a good workplace culture. (I wrote recently about how we developed our workplace culture .)

We will continue to put a lot of emphasis on keeping our workplace culture upbeat and vibrant. We don’t want anyone to feel bitter or resentful about being in the office; we want our office to brim with good, positive energy.

To make sure the atmosphere is good and remains so, we intend to check in with staff regularly to see how they are feeling.

We’re making conscious decisions about who actually needs to be present

When we started Knak in my basement, the members of our original team were all very aligned. Being together allows us to move quickly and in unison towards our stated goals.

That experience opened my eyes to the power of having everyone working together in one room; we were able to get sh*t done!

But the reality is that not all departments work the same way, and not all employees need to be in the same physical space.

That means making conscious decisions about which departments or teams will benefit from being physically together, and which will function just as effectively even if some team members work remotely.

For example, right now our finance and human resources employees all live in Ottawa, so it should be easy to get them working together. However, a lot of our development people don’t live in Ottawa, so coordinating them will be harder. We have to be intentional about how we structure the teams and where they are located so we can maximize the power of being in-person.

Will some people want to move to Ottawa to be part of the office culture? Maybe, and that will result in another discussion of how we can support them in that decision.  Or, there could be alternative ideas or new policies and processes to help employees travel to or visit the office on a regular basis.  

Will we limit our future hires to people who can come to the office in certain roles or departments? These are tough questions our employees (and future employees) will want answered. Ultimately, it will probably depend on the department; some departments like HR and Finance will be located in Ottawa, but in general we will continue to hire the best people we can find, regardless of where they live.

We realize the new rules may affect our ability to hire.

A growing company like Knak is always on the lookout for new talent. And naturally, we want the best employees we can find.

Even though Ottawa is a tech hub, some of the people we want and need live elsewhere. When everyone was working remotely, that didn’t matter. But if we require people to come to the office, what’s that going to do to our ability to hire? We’re not yet sure.

We’re going to carefully evaluate any exceptions.

Do we allow exceptions to our three-days-in-the-office rule?

Some people have become very comfortable working from home. Maybe it makes child care easier, or maybe commuting is difficult. Others simply don’t live anywhere within commuting distance.

It’s natural to resist change, and we are feeling some pushback from some people.

We haven’t yet decided how to handle exceptions; what I do know is that I want to personally evaluate any requests not to come to the office, and decide on a case-by-case basis.

I do know we value every one of our employees. If anyone is having real difficulty with returning to the office, they should feel safe to discuss this with their manager.   

We have to accept that we can’t please everyone

The reality is that it’s not possible for everyone to come in. Some people may require accommodation for legitimate reasons. But any requests for an exception to the in-the-office rule have to be considered carefully. As hard as it is, we have to accept that our policy won’t work for everyone.

We have to allow for flexibility

It’s evident, even if people come back to the office, that the old-style nine-to-five work world is dead. Employees want – and we intend to keep giving – some flexibility in working arrangements. I don’t care if people come in later (I’m not a morning person myself), or if they stay later, or if they take time off during the day to attend to personal business. What matters is that they are available for meetings and collaboration, and that they produce what they are expected to produce.

Our hybrid arrangement is part of that flexibility. People will have two days at home to work without anyone bothering them, and they will have three days in the office where they can work collaboratively.

There are practical limits to flexibility. We have to make sure, for example, that people who need to work together are in the office on the same days; collaboration won’t be effective if they all overlap in the office only one day a week.

We won’t discard good remote working arrangements

During the pandemic, we built up some very good and effective remote teams. There’s no reason why they should not continue to work together remotely. Our challenge will be to make sure they don’t feel excluded or disconnected from people in the office.

That may mean bringing remote employees in on occasion so entire teams can work together for a few days.

Looking ahead… 

Having an office where everyone can meet and work is a luxury; I know because for many years I did not have that option. We’re at a stage where it’s possible to get everyone together. That’s a big advantage, and we need to use it.

I also know that the challenge we are facing is something completely new. Never before has technology allowed so many people to work remotely, and never before was there a situation where remote work was forced on so many people for such a long time. We can’t go back to the work world as it existed pre-pandemic – nor do we want to.

I’m sure there will be bumps in the road as we develop and implement a new office policy. But I hope that we will soon settle into a new way of working that is not only pleasant, but as productive and dynamic as possible.

Pierce Ujjainwalla (@marketing_101 on Twitter) is an entrepreneur, career marketer and founder of @revenuepulse and @knak. Marketing is his jam; doing it better with technology is his passion.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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