In the Hybrid Era, On-Sites Are the New Off-Sites

In the Hybrid Era, On-Sites Are the New Off-Sites

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If your goal is to bring people together in real life at work — sometimes, all the time, or anytime — you need to design a day employees won’t want to miss. At the very least, it’s critical to be intentional about how you plan your company’s days in the office, not only to add incentive, but also to make it worth your employees’ and your company’s time. The author recounts her experience working with a company to design in-person, monthly “Superdays” and presents three elements of a successful on-site.

Remember off-sites? Those once-a-year — maybe once-a-quarter — get togethers where we gathered for deep-dive strategy work, bonded on ropes courses, binged on professional development, and just hung out and got to know our colleagues and customers? While these gatherings used to be something to look forward to, these days, many employees don’t want to come into the office, let alone to an off-site.

If your goal is to bring people together in real life at work — sometimes, all the time, or anytime — you need to design a day employees won’t want to miss. At the very least, it’s critical to be intentional about how you plan your company’s days in the office, not only to add incentive, but also to make it worth your employees’ and your company’s time.

Since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve been partnering with CEOs and senior HR leaders to help them manage and even thrive during these turbulent times. As offices have slowly reopened, some leaders have asked me to help them design intentional “on-sites” (in-person days) to bring their teams together in new and impactful ways in a hybrid environment.

Reuben Daniels, managing partner of EA Markets, agreed to allow me to share the details of our work together when I was hired to help the company design their in-person, monthly “Superdays.” The details of this one case study can help guide leaders of companies of any industry or size to make the best use of their resources as they create in-person experiences with an ROE — return on engagement — in mind.

On-sites are one important way to invest in your employees’ engagement. That investment can have positive bottom-line implications — but not all on-sites are created equal. Here are three elements of a successful on-site.

Design with Your Values in Mind

The ultimate goal of everything leaders do should be to uphold their values — as people, of course, but also in relation to their business. On-sites are no exception. It’s important to take your values off the walls and into the halls, and on-sites are a wonderful way to do that.

During the pandemic, Daniels decided to get rid of the company’s office space in favor of a “work from anywhere” approach. However, he knew that his employees still needed and wanted time to be in person to complete tasks, be creative, and just connect. Monthly “Superdays,” which take place in a rented office space, are EA’s answer to this common dilemma.

When we spoke about how to structure the days, Daniels shared what was important to the company, and it was clear to me that we could organize them around EA’s values.

Specifically, Daniels mentioned health, wealth, and growth as the three most important themes to focus on during the company’s transition to a new way of working. So together, we broke down the days’ content into these three categories:

  • Health, which includes flexible office choices, commute limits, and team-building, as well as taking care of employees’ wellness.
  • Wealth, which includes cross-functional meetings, sprint-like work sessions, and team lunches and events.
  • Growth, which is the time for personal and professional development.

By identifying these value-led goals ahead of time, we made sure that the Superday design was aligned with the company’s big-picture mission.

As you think about designing your in-person days, take a “fork in the road” test. When you’re faced with a decision — should we come in at 8 a.m. sharp or let people trickle in, should we all have lunch together, should we stay late for happy hour, etc. — let your values guide which way to turn. If you find that your values aren’t helpful in driving those decisions, you may need to take another look at them. If the values are working, keep bringing them front and center as you navigate all the decisions you have to make.

Take Professional Development Personally

Employees want to grow on the job: Up, down, and sideways. They want to know that there’s a path to laddering up, and many fear that being remote doesn’t give them as many opportunities for mobility.

Professional development is critical to stemming the tide of the Great Resignation. A recent survey of over 2,000 employees found that 92% think having access to professional development is important or very important. Not only that, but employees who get professional development opportunities are 15% more engaged and have 34% higher retention than those who don’t.

At EA, we designed Superdays so that professional development would be baked right into the structure of the day. Growth isn’t an afterthought or something an employee can only do on their own time, which is why during our working session, employees brainstormed ideas that included: having lunch-and-learns, interviewing senior leaders about their career paths, bringing in outside speakers, and hosting book clubs.

As you begin to create your own on-site, start by analyzing what professional development you currently offer and who’s been taking advantage of it. Chances are participation went down as people became increasingly overwhelmed and didn’t want to add one more thing to already long days. This is exactly why your on-site professional development efforts have never been more needed. To get the wheels turning again, consider having time each week or month where everyone stops and engages in personal or professional development. It can be a shared activity or an hour to take a class of your choice. What matters is that everyone learns — on the clock.

Rely on Shared Rituals or Create New Ones

Even the simplest rituals bring people together in important ways. At work, rituals are powerful because of what I call the three P’s: They increase psychological safety and a sense of purpose, which leads to increased performance.

We all have rituals, but it can be tricky to see them clearly. I define a ritual as something we do for no practical reason and on a regular cadence. For instance, employees often gather for lunch. That isn’t necessarily a ritual — after all, everyone has to eat. But when teams start to change their calendars to meet at a scheduled time, take turns ordering from the same menu, and feel a sense of loss when a lunch has to be missed, it becomes one. Rituals help us feel like ourselves, as human beings and as part of a group.

At EA, I wanted employees to appreciate their rituals so they could protect and maintain them during their Superdays. So I asked them this important question: When do employees feel most “EA-ish”?

Interestingly, the majority of employees came up with the same answer. “Over the last 21 months, we’ve felt most EA-ish during our Friday morning 9 a.m. meeting.”

My immediate thought was, Wow, I wonder what happens on Friday mornings?

Managing the Return

The future of work is here.

It turns out, EA employees have always had a standing 9 AM. status meeting. After the firm went remote, Daniels shifted the focus of the Friday meeting from company progress to company connection. The Friday meeting centers around one icebreaker question, such as, “If EA had a mascot, what would it be?” or “How do you decompress after a stressful day?” or “Tell us something that went well this week.” According to Perla Bernstein, EA’s chief of staff, this shared time together has become an important ritual where people get to know each other, connect as people, and end the week in a delightful way. In other words, simple time like this is a glue that holds people together.

We discussed how Superdays would likely create opportunities for new rituals (Superday itself is becoming a ritual). And I stressed the importance of maintaining the Friday-morning icebreaker, which has clearly emerged as an important time of the week to tie it all together.

As you think about how, when, and where employees will come together in 2022 and beyond, rituals are a great way to get started. Ask yourself and your team: When do you feel most ________-ish? The answer to the question will give you insight into some rituals that already exist in your company and how to get started building your own rituals roadmap. If no one has an answer to that question, that tells you something as well, and you might want to consider 2022 as the year of creating connections.

Some leaders will resist the idea that it’s up to them to entice employees back into the office. However, as noted in a 2021 Deloitte report, “Over the past year, leaders have shed their traditional thinking about the relationship between the organization and the workforce.” In order for us to solve the unimaginable problems every business is facing, it’s time for all of us to find new ways of thinking.

Indeed, taking care to align in-person days with our values, to take professional development personally, and to rely on rituals, will not, as the authors of the Deloitte put it, “detract from agency objectives and priorities, but instead create a more engaged and successful workforce that is better able to deliver.” And that’s good news for everyone.

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