TRENDS & OBSERVATIONS

The Five C's of Returning to the Office

The main reasons many tenants will keep an office footprint is because of the “Five Cs:” Creativity, Culture, Career Development, Communication and Collaboration. The “when” will depend on each company’s and industry’s sensitivity to the impact of all or a few of the “Five Cs.”

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5 C's of Returning to the Office
5 C's of Returning to the Office
Creativity is crucial to a corporation’s success. Companies like Google and Red Bull spend millions of dollars trying to unleash creativity to spur innovation.1 For instance, Google encourages their employee to spend 20% of their time looking toward creative, larger projects. Red Bull’s Hacking Creativity study brought together over 30,000 high-performing athletes, entrepreneurs, artists and professionals to attempt to better understand how to cultivate creativity. McKinsey found that if we could increase the time we spend in the “flow (creative) state”, overall workplace productivity would almost double.2 Unfortunately, the ability to have free-flowing conversations to explore creativity has been significantly reduced due to COVID-19. Brainstorming and creative ideation processes have definitely suffered in the eyes of remote workers, with nearly one in four (22%) saying that working from home has hurt their creativity and one in four managers (26%) agreeing. Both groups lay the blame on the isolation that can sometimes occur from a workforce being separated. Of the remote workers who felt less creative while working from home, 46% cited less facetime with their team as a reason, 44% said they felt like they were working in a bubble and didn’t know what their colleagues were doing, and 40% said it was harder to collaborate with their team on calls. On the management side, nearly one in four (22%) said the drop-off in creativity was because they no longer had access to the visual brainstorming as a team that fosters creative ideas.3

“It is so interesting to hear how “flexible” a WFH day is. In reality – many of us run from meeting to meeting all day, which requires structure and agendas for efficiency as well as avoiding those awkward zoom pauses and small talk. This doesn’t lend itself to free form collaboration, or valuable brainstorming sessions. In my experience, social and visual ques in virtual meetings are still not up to par with being in person.” 

-Carolyn Leslie, Vice President

5Cs Creativity

“Remote work has created new challenges for sharing ideas and collaborating. In the office, creative problem solving could be as easy as walking up to someone’s desk. Now with a more fragmented communication process, it’s critical to make the most of our virtual team meetings with thoughtful topics, assignments and presentations that will benefit the group and ultimately spark discussion from the team.”

– Will Feltus, Vice President

Howard Stevenson, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, once said “maintaining an effective culture is so important that it, in fact, trumps even strategy.”4 Most large companies describe their official corporate culture in terms of the values they want employees to practice on a day-to-day basis. The emphasis on culture to attract and maintain talent continues to become more important. Gallup data shows that even without being forced to work virtually, about 60% of employees (virtual or not) cannot fully agree that they know what their company stands for. Employees who work virtually are even more disconnected from core values – remote employees are 7% less likely to see their connection to the mission of the company.5 Some companies have attempted to be creative with virtual team bonding activities and regular check-ins, however nothing replaces face-to-face interactions and observations.

“Our culture is built on connection and the belief that we succeed and fail as a team. Finding ways to connect with teammates outside of normal work parameters is essential to building trust and comradery. Bellwether Day, which is a summer day out of the office that focuses on a team building event in the morning and socialization at the beach in the afternoon is our annual keystone event to bring people together. Typically, it occurs two weeks after our new undergrad hires start so it is a great way to acclimate them to our culture and greater team. Similarly, our holiday party has become another way to connect out of the office, both with current teammates, Bellwether alumni and key client contacts. Finding a way to replicate these events and the connections built over hours of socialization has been near impossible, especially when 50 people are on a zoom happy hour. This has not deterred us from finding unique ways to source that out-of-office connection during the pandemic, but we’ve also learned that it is not quite the same.”

-Dennis Grzeskowiak, Principal

5Cs Culture

“Our people and culture drive the success of our platform; we recruit off of it, we retain talent off of it and it’s really a driver for why new clients want to work with our team and why people want to stay working with us. During this time, we’ve had to rethink the way we engage and how we communicate with our team. Bellwether has done an excellent job doing that by opening up new lines of communication and creating small and larger team building events that can be attended virtually. I think what is most exciting about returning to the office is reestablishing connections and strengthening our culture based off the challenges and changes we have gone through over the last year.”

-Ben Easton, Sr. Vice President

“Bellwether has had a strong, positive culture for many years and 2020 is not an exception. Although our firm built this culture primarily through in person relationship building, we were able to pivot and maintain our company culture with a focus on transparent, frequent communication with an emphasis on employee feedback. Through regular tag-ups, employee surveys, and all-hands meetings, we could better understand the needs of our people. To keep things fun, we have mailed out care packages and hosted virtual events that go beyond the typical Zoom Happy Hour, with hosted masquerades and murder mystery events with improv actors.”

-Karen Wolcott, Director of Human Resources

An employee’s level of experience plays a large role in their preference to return to the office. In the PWC survey, respondents with the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) are more likely to want to be in the office more often. Thirty percent of them prefer being remote no more than one day a week vs. just 20% of all respondents. The least experienced workers are also more likely to feel less productive while working remotely (34% vs. 23%).6 Less experienced employees are going to want facetime with colleagues and executives to listen and learn. Executives want a pulse on all the various departments, control outputs, and want to visually witness productivity. Middle-level employees value flexibility and are the least likely cohort to want to return to the office. However, if employees want opportunities to advance their careers, they will ultimately return. Research shows that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working. When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-life balance and causing more job stress.7

“Developing talent and fostering a workplace where employees have a meaningful work experience is at the forefront of our culture. From the top down, our team has made a concerted effort to minimize the connectivity gap created by work from home; however, the camaraderie and apprenticeship culture we aim to create is optimized when we are together in person.”

-Patrick Foley, Sr. Vice President

 

“The Bellwether team has done an exceptional job transitioning learning and onboarding from in-person to remote, but the challenges of remote working steepens the learning curve and complicates career development. I realize this now, after comparing my learning experience as an intern in the office to an analyst in the “Work from Home” environment. My internship experience was great because, not only was I able to get to know the team and their career experiences during our walks to lunch, I was also able to quickly learn and understand the everyday tasks of the analysts. Being in the office gave me the opportunity to pull up a chair and see how our team interacts with partners, interprets monthly financial reporting and reforecasts property cash flow models. I have realized that while it is possible to learn how to complete everyday tasks and assignments through virtual platforms, the learning curve is steeper and my ability to develop connections with the rest of the team is limited. Overall, I am most excited to get back to the office so that I can begin forming professional relationships with the growing Bellwether team.”

-Lillie Lustig, Analyst

5Cs Career Development

“The onboarding and training process in a “Work from Home” environment truly highlights the importance of having an office space to promote collaboration. Particularly for those coming into their first job, a sense of culture and ability to ask questions freely is crucial in one’s development, and is greatly diminished when working remotely. To compensate for this lack of face-to-face interaction, managers must schedule numerous check-in and follow-up calls, which equates to more meetings and a less efficient training than the normal processes when in the office.” 

– Logan David, Sr. Associate

There is a common saying that COVID-19 accelerated pre-existing trends. If communication was lacking in an office prior to COVID-19, then the pandemic escalated that trend. Colleagues have to overcommunicate in a time where visibility is lacking. While teleconferencing tools have made this unprecedented shift to remote work feasible, “Zoom Fatigue” is wearing on people after a year. Nothing replaces an in-person conversation. If a company chooses a hybrid model, communication will be even more of a necessity. Many conversations will happen organically around the office and if a colleague is remote, they may feel left out of the conversation or even the company. To provide an analogy, it would be very similar to if your entire team were to go into an office and close the door. Whether companies choose remote work or a hybrid approach, remote communication will continue to be second rate to in-office conversations.

“Although technology has enabled us to work from home and accomplish our daily tasks, given the amount of zoom calls each day, email and IM have become even more abundant in our means of communication and at times, tone and intent can be misinterpreted creating unnecessary conflict.”

-Joe Mossotti, Principal

“It’s a privilege to be able to go to the office and be with your colleagues. Interacting with my teammates and fostering creativity and communication gives me a huge amount of energy. When I’m sitting on Zoom calls all day, it is much more difficult to tap into that.”

-Michael Baracco, Principal

5Cs Communication

“In-person communication not only fosters participation, but it prompts connectivity, efficiency, and trust. Although Zoom calls and emails technically allow for execution of day-to-day tasks, maintaining morale becomes challenging after spending hours behind a screen. Being surrounded by colleagues who are consistently sharing thoughts in the office makes for an exciting learning environment and sparks a curiosity to explore new ideas and initiatives for my own portfolio.”

-Chantalle Rochel, Sr. Associate

As the sudden lockdown measures and the ensuing surge in home-office work took hold, opportunities for serendipitous interactions among colleagues have come to a dramatic halt. Collaboration is a clear area of focus in distributed workforces. As noted previously, a full 75% of remote employees who expressed concerns about working from home ranked team collaboration as the aspect of their work that’s suffered the most. One of the most telling indicators of collaboration’s importance is the fact that nearly one in five (17%) remote workers report meeting with their colleagues in person against company protocol over the past few months.8 While some may enjoy the flexibility of work from home, there is a desire to renew human contact – employees are craving that interaction beyond a Zoom screen. Organizations like IBM, Yahoo, Aetna and others have experimented in the past with virtual cultures and later abandoned them, concluding that the benefits to in-person collaboration were too valuable to forgo and the risks of virtual working were too great to take on.

“We have a great team of smart, curious and motivated professionals. Bringing them together in person enhances communication, builds camaraderie and promotes personal bonding, resulting in interpersonal trust and sense of reciprocal accountability – the key components of a successful team.”

-Cara Leonard-Munn, Sr. Vice President

 

“Our winning culture is a byproduct of stakeholders’ creating and fostering a collaborative, can do, togetherness environment where getting people’s buy in becomes one of the most pivotal requirements of a team. One of the most effective ways in doing this, in my experience, is through in person interactions that allow folks to bond. In person lunches, dinners or happy hours where war stories are discussed have become a frequent activity for our team which allows newcomers to develop personal relationships across all departments.”

-Gerson Monzon, Vice President

 

“Although Bellwether has efficiently adapted to the work-from-home model, the office environment cultivates growth and collaboration that is hard to mimic virtually. While in the office as an intern, I could learn from colleagues in different divisions and develop new professional relationships.”

-Conor O’Brien, Analyst

Creativity, Culture, Career Development, Communication and Collaboration are imperative to the framework of any company. The office sector has the acknowledged headwind of remote work, but office demand will likely return as WFH ultimately cannot replace the in-office “Five Cs.”

Sources

1 Stealing Fire by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, published February 2017

2 Harvard Business Review, Create a Work Environment That Fosters Flow, October 2019

3 Lucidspark, How collaboration and creativity are suffering in the wake of COVID-19, September 2020

4 Harvard Business Review, When to Fire a Top Performer Who Hurts Your Company Culture, October 2012

5 Gallup, Remote Work: Is It a Virtual Threat to Your Culture, August 2020

6 PWC, Remote Work Survey, January 2021

7 Harvard Business Review, Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues, July 2020

8 Lucidspark, How collaboration and creativity are suffering in the wake of COVID-19, September 2020