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opinion

Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

As kids head back to school, many workers are now anticipating a long-awaited return to our offices in the coming weeks. For introverted colleagues, that may be a bit of a bummer, as many of you have thrived at home. Among more extroverted colleagues, it can’t happen soon enough.

Organizations have learned plenty about supporting remote work in the past few months. Clearly, both the concept and the technologies have passed the test imposed by COVID-19, and I personally think we’ll benefit from the change in thinking about more flexible types of blended work arrangements that this offers.

Societally, the competing demands of managing work, kids and various other tasks have long called for rethinking the traditional workday in a standard office configuration. When people have a blended work week or a flexible work-from-home option when it’s needed, we can also benefit from reduced traffic during rush hours, smoother and less packed commutes on public transit and overall less stress around getting to and from work. That applies equally to downtown office real estate and the many distributed community-based office parks that have cropped up in most city suburbs.

But just like kids have suffered from missing the in-person socialization of the school environment, many office workers have felt the same.

To me, the apparent productivity gains of working from home are offset by the gap that being physically apart creates in organizational culture. There is an old joke among knowledge workers that the world has yet to create a better mechanism for knowledge sharing than the standard office coffee room. That holds true for culture as well, as it is much more difficult to build – much less maintain – office and team culture through solely online means.

As good as many of our remote work or office collaboration tools are for connecting with one another from our basements and kitchen tables, I’ve yet to see one that can replicate the important physical dimensions of talking in person. This is especially true when it comes to the informal aspects of connecting, which are often the moments where true interpersonal connections are made and organizational or team culture reinforced at the ground level.

Even workplaces that were well advanced in remote and flexible work prior to COVID-19 usually did not completely remove the option for people to get together in person. Instead, they have made many of their office configurations inherently more social, such as removing traditional offices and cubicles and installing bean bag chairs or comfy sofas, coffee bar workstations and big communal tables. Instead of coming to the office for deep thinking on your own, tucked away in a cubicle, these spaces are designed to encourage interactions that help support deliberate collaboration and building team and broader organizational culture.

If you’ve recently visited any of the local co-working spaces in your city, you’ll know what I’m talking about (and if you haven’t, you should drop in for a tour). Deep thinking and individual work can still happen at quiet places like home or in some personal offices set aside for that purpose, but they complemented by office spaces that inspire new and different connections on a personal level.

Leaders may talk culture all day, but it really gets built when people come together to share perspectives and reinforce it daily through their personal interactions. That’s the place where leaders and employees actually get to walk the talk. Most workplaces I’m familiar with are doing staged returns, with employees coming into the office one or two days a week. That offers important opportunities for those informal interpersonal connections that usually start with, “Hey, do you have a few minutes?” and end up changing the way both people are thinking about a business opportunity or challenge. That’s where innovation happens, born of lateral thinking and a cross-pollination of ideas.

I also think it is critical right now to try and reinforce a positive outlook about the post-COVID-19 business environment. Within Canada, many business sectors and provinces are still very much struggling. That creates a permeating sense of doom and general insecurity among workers when they are physically apart. Getting back together in person provides an important release for talking through those fears and, equally, a chance to rebuild more hopeful perspectives. Having the psychological comfort and safety of the group has always been a part of organizational cultures, and it’s high time that we get back together to build again.

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