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  • Hannah Brown

Return to the Office with a Hybrid Model

Things are getting real with regards to returning to the office, if you haven't already started to return to the office. Currently, San Francisco is allowing offices to return at 50% capacity and noting that vaccinated individuals do not count towards the capacity count. Theoretically, your firm might be able to be back in the office 100%, even if only to have a toast that the firm has survived this crazy, intense, trying, and scary year+.

But the reality is that your staff, maybe you too, will be reluctant to return to business as usual. In polls I've recently been a part of or privy to, more than 75% of the employees want to return to the office only 2-3 days a week. Firm owners are less enthusiastic about this plan; some polls report that only 20-25% are onboard with partial return to the office. In the world of small design firms, my guesstimate, based on talking to 40+ firm owners, is that 40% want to return full-time to the office, 40% want to explore a hybrid model of working, 10% have given up their office space and will return to a shared working space on a very limited, as-needed basis, and 10% are just not sure what to do. The reality is that most firms are going to explore a hybrid model of working, at the very least temporarily due to capacity limitations imposed by cities and counties.

We know how to work in the office. We now know how to work 100% remotely. But what does hybrid work look like? Essentially, that may seem a very simple concept, but in practice, in the midst of a pandemic, it's not so easy and so strap in for the myriad of requirements that you will need to navigate. My last blog is meant to address those requirement. But putting the requirements aside for a moment, it is important to first and foremost start communicating with all of your employees about the path forward. And there are a couple of key decisions that may shape that path.

In most cases, I have helped clients to craft a plan to return to the office - a plan that can be communicated easily in an office meeting or an email. Given where we have been and distancing requirements, the plan typically includes small steps such as having a project team or two meet in the office for 2-3 hours per week. Think of this as similar to when you've just woke up from a nap (a long one that had a few nightmares so your anxiety is high) and you've got to rub your eyes and stretch a little to get refocused. Within this plan, you should offer what you as the employer will provide and do for the office, getting specific about things like ventilation, shared spaces, eating together, etc. and then providing a list of expectations of the employee, such as wiping down shared ipads or printers and checking themselves for symptoms before they come in. You get specific here because you are communicating what you expect and providing everyone with a common baseline. From there, the questions will come.

At this point, you will most likely start to hear the employees' concerns. It may be wise to prepare a survey for the firm, but if the firm is small, surveys are not going to be as helpful as providing a period during which the employees can come to you, or another designated person in your firm, with concerns and then letting them know that you are going to compile these concerns and get back to everyone within a specific timeframe. Response should come in the form of a revised policy and an additional office meeting. You won't be able to solve everyone's commuting concerns, but you might be able to provide a period of flexibility during which adjustment happens.

Technology and the design of the office will be 2 of the things to figure out over time and starting with small team meetings may help ideas emerge for both. Many firms worry about providing an adequate desktop or laptop for both home and office. These are not small chunks of change. Some firms have provided everyone with a second machine that is less powerful; others have provided everyone with an ipad for in office and site visits. The design of the office is also likely to change, and making strides and budgeting time and finances towards a more flexible office space will likely serve well over time.

A word about vaccinations. The CDC and the states have clearly decided this ball is in your court as a business owner. The CDC aspires to getting 90% of employers to require vaccination as a requirement for return to work. Meanwhile they are focusing on marketing and advice that touts the perks of vaccination. I particularly like and encourage clients to share with employees this page from the CDC. If you chose to require vaccinations, you may require proof of vaccinations. If you don't require a vaccinations, you shouldn't ask if staff have been vaccinated and you can't require proof of vaccination. As I see it, for the foreseeable future, the whole office must operate as if all staff are unvaccinated and in the future, not having a policy requiring vaccines may cause intra-office concerns, not to mention client concerns. The AIACC has posted a Q&A on vaccination requirements that is thorough and helpful and walks through many employer concerns.

Change is never easy. I'm currently puppy training and what a change that has been to our lives! A helpful concept that I took from a puppy training class is that puppy learning will go from little knowledge to knowing lots of commands, boundaries, and signals over one year, but that diagonal path will be more of a zig zag on an upward trajectory. The path towards the hybrid office is likely to be somewhat the same, but it is important to keep in mind that more than 75% of employees are eager for more flexible working accommodations. In the next 2 years, a well-defined plan (or plans, recognizing that a plan will evolve!) and accommodations for work from home will distinguish firms and become a benefit to employees (read: a selling point in recruiting and retention) as well as a part of our culture. It also helps reduce our carbon footprint as we start to alleviate some commuting traffic - a huge win for sustainability.

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