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Solving the Return to Work Puzzle for Small Businesses

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Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts.

I was 23 when I got married, and it took me 8 years to work up the courage to take the leap into the role of motherhood. I like to understand all I can about a situation before I commit—this is a curse. What typically happens is that I read and research the crap out of things, only to end up with great insights but a high sense of inadequacy because no matter how much I read, I can’t know and master everything.

I made a key decision at that juncture, one that is still serving me well even now that my kid is graduating from college and heading off to the big city. That decision was simply to trust my instincts and stop striving for the illusion of perfection. It’s easy to get wrapped up in that illusion based on expert takes from years of research and hindsight—making something as complex, messy, and stressful as bringing a child into the world sound simple. That was it for me, no more “What to Expect” books on my shelf. Instead, I listened to some close and trusted resources for basic information and I figured the rest out myself.

Did I screw things up? A few. But so do the most prepared of new moms. Did my kids turn out okay? You are welcome to meet them, but I would say...definitely. My way turned out to be exactly the right way because I listened to my own voice and followed my most trusted resources to guide me.

Okay, what does this have to do with my business?

Why tell this story that has not one thing to do with marketing or human resources? Because if I ever needed to take my own advice, it is now. As we appear to be emerging from a year of self-isolation, the post-COVID return to work discussion has become all the rage. Already we’re seeing books, podcasts, blogs, and webinars on how one multi-billion dollar business or another has wielded immense budgets and endless resources to craft the perfect back-to-work transition plan, complete with all of the coolest bells and whistles. But compared to that, a company of our size and budget can’t even begin to compete.

So, after consuming tons of content about how big companies are managing this process, I found myself back in that place where my heart was pounding and my anxiety about perfection was reeling out of control. I may as well be back in 1998 sweating through the pages of “365 Days of Being the Perfect New Mom.” And that’s when I had another moment of realization. I can do this. I am capable, adequately informed and I have great instincts. And the best part? I have 35 people that work at our company who are trusted resources for me as I work through this conundrum—I am not alone in this.

So I shifted my thinking and, so far, this is what I know for sure.

Tell, don’t show

We do not have copious financial resources to create an over-the-top state-of-the-art experience for the return to work, so I can skip the pomp and circumstance of creating a facade of fun and pretend culture props to lure folks to come back to the office. I see this as an advantage. Instead, we have to figure this out ourselves by talking, listening, considering, and thinking very carefully about our next steps.

Substance is much more important than style here. I want to have conversations with everyone I work with about what we feel comfortable with, what’s scaring us, and what a smart and safe future looks like for our office. If we nail that, who cares if there’s a party?

Flexibility is king

Working mostly from home has demanded a little more schedule flexibility than we’re all used to, but we’ve found that as long as everyone is on the same page, it can work. I know that our team has thrived in our forced remote environments—our employees have worked very hard to have clarity about the results they are accountable for delivering, and deliver they have. As far as how, when, or where they worked on these awesome results...who cares?

I know I have no business case for shocking the system into going from isolation and independence to full on socialization and management by the rules and regulations of old. Pandemic or not, we should have been managing by accountability and results rather than glamour metrics like hours worked a long time ago, and I see no compelling reason to ever go back to butts in seats 5 days a week. Unless, I guess, you suck at accountability, and it is the only way you know how to get what you need.

You still need an anchor

Despite the fact that we all obviously are able to work pretty much wherever we want now, I still know that providing a place to gather, to collaborate and to engage with clients and teams, is more important than ever. If anything, a year of separation has only made us miss the in-person interactions we get at work more. And making your space your own only improves the experience—especially when it’s competing with a home office.

But with the need for flexibility in mind, having the option for live interaction and exchange works so much better than having a requirement for it. You no longer need a permanent desk for every headcount or thousands of square feet of space to accommodate the 8-5 workforce in the office. Just space for people to use when they really need it.

Don’t worry about what the big dogs are doing

I’ve been thinking about this “back to work” dilemma for quite a while now. My planning process has shifted from insatiable consumption of articles about how big companies are handling this to simply engaging a few folks in my network with similarly sized companies, combined with individual conversations and inputs from every single employee here at Element Three. What do they want? How are they most productive? What are they missing now that we can provide once we can gather again? How do they like to be managed? Do they have clarity about the results they are accountable for?

These are the important parts of your return-to-the-office process, not trying to match what multi-billion dollar businesses are doing. Make it right for your business, make it right for your people. That’s all that really matters.

On our end, I am very excited about this next phase for Element Three and our team. There is much to be done and I am right in the middle of it all currently but stay tuned, I will let you know how this story progresses. I can already tell you it is easier than having a baby.


Karen Seketa Element Three

Karen Seketa has been matching people to positions for years, and she's the one who finds all the superstars that populate the Element Three family. She's been here almost since the beginning, and if you ask her, she'll tell you it was the best decision she ever made.