Transcript: Returning to the Office – Part 1

The second season of the Benefits and Wellness Superhero Podcast kicks off with a two-part panel discussion led by Thorpe Benefits President, Roger Thorpe.

Roger moderates a discussion focused on how employers can support employees to readjust to working – at least part time – back at the office. His guests this time are Mette Johansen Keating, Founder and Creative Director at mettespace, and Lisa Taylor, President of the Challenge Factory, Inc.

Read the edited transcript below, listen to part one and watch the full video panel.


Roger Thorpe (00:28):

Hey, everybody. Welcome. it’s Roger Thorpe here from Thorpe benefits. I’m joined by my friends and colleagues, Lisa Taylor, and Mette Johansen Keating. We’re here to have a thoughtful, very insightful discussion about the transition of going back into a trusted, safe, and productive workspace.

I’m really excited about the points of view that Lisa and Mette will bring to this conversation, because it’s also from Lisa’s point of view, a lot of research, a lot of discussions with companies about what they have done and how they feel about this.

Mette will look at it from what it’s going to look like inside the workspace and how people interact in that environment.

Let’s start with an open question for you both: employees have got used to working from their homes. What do you think is the benefit of returning to the office?

Mette Johansen Keating (01:48):

I think for sure it’s to actually be with other people I think we’ve been missing the sort of official connection with other people and people are hungry to get back and get a feel for the culture and to get more connected; to be face-to-face with people. But there’s also obviously a lot of fear with going back to the office.

Lisa Taylor (02:18):

I think organizations that have been distributed before the pandemic had learned over time, right? The pandemic didn’t create this as a new environment. There’s lots of companies that have had remote employees for decades. What they’ve known is that there are certain activities that are best done face-to-face. And then there are other activities where it’s  employee choice. What do you prefer, are you more productive? Do you work better when you’re in an office setting that gives you the cues and the rituals from the moment you get dressed in the morning to starting to leave your house, like the things that organize your day that help you to be productive during the day or are you more productive doing certain activities from a home office or from another location, a third space?

So those are things and trends that we saw before the pandemic.

Lisa Taylor (03:07):

And it really comes down to not so much a definition of where should I do my work all the time, but, instead, what kinds of work are we expecting people to do? And what’s the right mode for them to accomplish that. And then how can we help to encourage people who might be a little hesitant to come back to the office to do so? Not only as Mette said, because we are all craving seeing each other and having a chance to grab a coffee with a colleague and to do all of those social things, but that there’s actually almost a social responsibility of our institutions to help us move forward and get back out of our homes. We’re not intended to just be in our homes all the time. And there’s a role that the workplace plays in helping us move forward from this moment in time.

Roger Thorpe (04:01):

Good. That’s a good overall observation of that. And I like how you answered it with a number of other questions that are going to come to bear. So, we haven’t figured it all out yet.

Mette – when we talk about hybrid schedules and having dedicated workstations or more collaborative workstations and schedules what do you see in terms of issues around that changing towards a hybrid model?

Mette Johansen Keating (04:36):

So, like you said, we haven’t figured it all out because we will not figure it all out. And we have to accept that this is going to be sort of a transition that we’re going to go through for, for some time, but I’ve always believed that a company needs to be flexible. A company changes even during the regular years, like it’s not a one size-fits-all, and it’s not a, now we moved in and now it’s going to be like this forever. I always try to make really flexible spaces because people need a dynamic place and an organization needs to move and change too; to be agile the whole way through with the physical space and how you set it all up.

Mette Johansen Keating (05:22):

We got totally blown away by this pandemic and it has made so many things more clear. I’m actually very excited about it because now people, instead of just doing the routine and going to work are starting to think about this. They’re starting to have more quality work time as opposed to just doing it because that’s the routine that they’re in.

I think it’s going to require a lot of thinking about how do we want to set the office up? And how does this work for individual people and how does it work for the organization? What I’m seeing is that people are going to go back to work and the people that I’m working with right now are doing the hybrid. They’re trying to figure out what is going to work for this particular person and company. And it requires more planning. It requires more listening. It requires more just be aware of it and just  think about how, how does it work?

Roger Thorpe (06:42):

Right. We haven’t figured it out. Therefore, leaders have to be willing as employees come back in, to listen, look and see how people are doing and be willing to make some changes. And ideally they’ve already built some sort of modular style of office then you know, it’s okay to move around, go to that desk, go to that office. Maybe we do have to move some things around. But not necessarily have to make the bet. We don’t have to make the bet today, but we can make those changes sooner now.

Mette Johansen Keating (07:22):

And the teams that needs to meet at the, obviously you’ve made there, make sure that the people that you need to meet with, because you’re going to the office when it’s possible, obviously it needs to be there. So there’s a lot of planning that needs to happen.

Roger Thorpe (07:36):

Right. And like the scheduling part of that is knowing, like you said, is my best friend, my colleague going to be there today, are you going in on Thursday? You know, there’s going to be some of that technology will come in..

Mette Johansen Keating (07:49):

But there’s a downside because you’re not going to have those sort of impulsive meetings or impromptu coffees – so you have to give room for that too. You can’t just only go into meet with part of that team. You need to also be able to see other people that you run into. So there’s some downside to being too planned.

Roger Thorpe (08:18):

Okay, that’s good advice. Lisa, how do you think that we’re going to balance the needs of both parties, the business versus the employee? Or can we do both?

Lisa Taylor (08:31):

Hopefully those needs are aligned, right? But it’s not a one side versus the other. And how do we accommodate one versus the other, but rather that employees work within the context of a business because there’s shared values and shared goals and shared vision of the contribution of the work, the meaning of their work is tied up in the meaning of their company. And I think keeping that in mind, you know, the culture of your organization is actually the single greatest determining factor on whether you’re going to have this go smoothly or have this be difficult. It’s, even more important than the footprint of your current real estate, the technology that you currently implement, because at the end of the day, people work with people that they like and trust. And so it’s a whole question about how do we plan for the different needs that will happen; whether it’s remote work or working at the office full-time or hybrid work really comes down to what’s the culture and values of your organization.

Lisa Taylor (09:38):

And when you run these decisions through that filter, what answer makes your company uniquely responsive to the work that you do? So, one company may have values and a culture that really focuses on individuality and individual results, and they may make different choices than a company that has fostering community at the core of what it does as an organization. So we can’t separate the values and the culture of the company from these, what feels like very practical, real estate and technology type of discussions. We’re actually at a moment in time where it’s a really good moment for every leadership team to have a little bit of trust and a lot of courage to say, you know, at this moment in time, as we’re embarking into the future of work with all of the changes that are going to be coming in that context, who are we, and what values do we want to stand on? Because at the end of the day, if one employee has a question about why am I having to do this when this employee gets a different  treatment, if there’s a core value that helps to explain why there’s a difference, then you’re on strong footing. If it’s random and hard to explain, you’re setting yourself up for issues.

Roger Thorpe (10:57):

I guess a principle of employer branding is that consistency – so people start hearing things that connect with that core. Then they’re going to wonder what they’re listening to. They might be suspicious of that. Just going into a bit more specifics of that.

If we’re trying to get people back to work, is there anything employers can do to prove to employees that it is worth their time and effort to commute again, because you know that part of it and the safety or the risk of commuting through you know, subways and street cars and buses back to the office, what do you think the employer can do to sort of prove that case?

Lisa Taylor (11:43):

I think employers can do a couple of things. The first is they can recognize that the employees return to the office journey happens the moment they get up in the morning on a day when they’re going to come back to the office, especially in this transition period where people are testing things out. So it is not a moment, a message or a, an opportunity to be really well-organized and welcoming when people walk through your door. But to recognize that a person’s morning is set out by their commute. And so what are some of the things that you can be doing so that employees remain connected and understanding of why they’re doing it while they’re in the midst of their commute? What podcasts can you provide or message from your president, or what types of materials can you be providing so that they have something that connects them to why they’re commuting when they’re not used to doing it right from when they leave their house.

Lisa Taylor (12:41):

The second thing that employers can do is make sure that you’re sharing that information. I mean, the number of cases and the actual safety of public transit is something that we shouldn’t just, you know, toss out as an issue. Is it actually an issue or is it safe? And if it’s safe, we shouldn’t talk about it as if it’s an unsafe environment. So, with all of the things that are happening within the jurisdiction in Ontario, where I happen to be sitting with mask mandates, with vaccine mandates, with the way that things are, being a good provider of information that doesn’t feed into fear that may not be justified, but rather actually highlighting where our systems are safe and what is there for support.

And then the third, the third actually comes to me from, I recently traveled.

Lisa Taylor (13:35):

So I took my first plane ride, post pandemic. And one of the things that was remarkable to me was the staff that were at Pearson airport, not a single person came up and asked, can I help you? They assumed that I was probably not going to remember exactly what the next step was. I was probably going to be a little bit nervous and a little bit embarrassed. And instead of asking, can I help you? What do you need go to the welcome desk, go to the information desk. There was just people everywhere that just oriented you to say, oh great, you have your boarding pass. The next step is to drop your bag. That’s something I would have known, like without any doubt at all. But in that moment, super helpful just to orient myself, right? This is the next thing that I do when I come back.

Lisa Taylor (14:25):

So employers can take that as a cue to think about what are the cues, what are not the questions, but just the basic cues that you want to provide people with. So that they’re reminded of the rituals. How does your office function? What happens when you first arrive in the office?

My very last suggestion – and then I’ll I’ll pause – is just to think about the things that are no longer working things in the office that have batteries, right? Everyone’s going to hit their desk and their mess is going to be dead. Everyone’s going to hit their desk and they’re not going to remember. They’re like, what are the things that are probably not working? And how can you separate some of those activities so that it becomes an event to set yourself up instead of commuting for the first time and finally getting into the office and then not being able to be productive, how can getting the office be set so it’s productive on the first day back? And I think that that’s really important.

Roger Thorpe (15:29):

Yeah, that’s great. I never thought of that. And that we’re back to ground zero again, and like somebody coming back to, or to their first day of working you know,

Mette Johansen Keating (15:39):

So yeah, I would need to look at the Lisa’s website and they have some great ideas for for going back to work. Like just little things that you can think about both as an employer and an employee. Very,

Lisa Taylor (15:52):

Very good. Thanks for that.

Roger Thorpe (15:55):

I think, I mean, for some families, the commute has been a buffer of quiet solace time of listening to a book, a podcast. It doesn’t have to be an anxious fear once they get past those first few days of being in with other people. But you’ve, you’ve proven that there are safety precautions taken, hopefully people can eventually say, “oh, I really enjoy that commute. It’s actually pretty restful going from the chaos of what might’ve been at home for the last year”.

Lisa Taylor (16:34):

I think it also contributes to our overall health and wellness. It gets us out of our homes. We have to walk, you know, it’s not just a walk from the second floor to the kitchen and then back up again, like it’s an actual walking through concourses or to get to the station or wherever you’re heading. Like there’s a lot of elements about that commute that if we highlight those positive elements on wellness, as opposed to the frustration and the traffic and the downsides I think that that’s important too.

Mette Johansen Keating (17:05):

Yeah. I think a lot of people are like, once they get back to it, like they, if they’re commuting for an hour and they’re taking the train, I know a lot of people are sitting there working. So if they are in fact working that should be accountable for part of your Workday, possibly if that’s something that you can make with your employer. So that’s part of your day. Yeah.

Roger Thorpe (17:28):

Well, I guess the term really is work from anywhere. Not just work from home, so that could be from any environment. Right. So, okay. Good points.

I think this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time and your experience and insights on this. I think our audience will really appreciate what they’re hearing today. So be well, everybody.