John Snyder is CEO of Net Friends, a managed services provider headquartered in Durham, NC.
I’ll cut to the chase: I am not going to require our staff to return to the office by a specific date. Not in 2021, not in 2022 or beyond. There are many reasons for this, deeply rooted in our history and approach to services at Net Friends.
We will retain our office space, and I’m excited about our plans to transform it into a far more collaborative and career-enhancing environment for our staff.
OUR 20-YEAR HISTORY WITH REMOTE WORK
In the first few years of Net Friends, we did not have an office. Our founder, David, owned a building in downtown Durham at which we received mail, but everyone at Net Friends started and ended their workday onsite with our customers, solving problems in-person all day long. We’ve long found that our productivity is highest when we’re not at our office, and anything that encourages more customer interactions and engagement is something I highly value.
I’ve often found an office to be of limited utility to an organization like ours. I long resisted having an office myself, working onsite with customers or remote from my home office for my first 17 years at Net Friends. When I did get a desk of my own at the office, I consistently made it in a shared space that was visible and open to my company. I wanted to be seen as accessible to others, ready to serve.
2018: ESTABLISHING OUR HEADQUARTERS
We purchased and moved into our new 10,000+ square foot headquarters in Durham in late 2018, and I really like the space. It has an arguably over-engineered network infrastructure, highly stable power thanks to a backup generator, and will soon be bolstered by solar panels on our roof. It’s a bright, clean, and flexible workspace with an interesting open layout. We can readily hold a company luncheon or event, and we have ample space to work individually or in groups. Prior to the pandemic, our teams enjoyed face-to-face encounters facilitated in state-of-the-art meeting rooms and around the water cooler for our 3PM company “Snack Time.”
ADJUSTING TO ANYWHERE OPERATIONS
Counter-intuitively, while most of our company has been working remotely since March 2020, our productivity has skyrocketed over the past year. I attribute this in part to frantic pivoting and innovating as we adapted to the new business conditions brought about by the pandemic. But sustained productivity actually came from the improved capture and documentation of all available work cycles in the day.
For example, thanks to everyone being right at a keyboard in all meetings, we take far better notes, readily document and check-off assigned tasks, and hew closely to the agenda. It’s much easier to pull all the right people together into a virtual meeting.
Everyone at Net Friends is aware that our business can bend and flex a great deal more than we previously thought was possible. We are now more accustomed to challenging an old way of doing things that isn’t producing results like it once did.
Sure, we’ve had friction with virtual meetings too: problems getting the screenshare function engaged, “you’re on mute”, and odd little glitches. Also, we have seen a disproportionate impact on new hires who join us while we are remote, as they have had an especially challenging time feeling properly oriented.
We’ve adapted by creating mentorship programs, structuring our onboarding schedules to be much more detailed, and involving over a dozen senior staff in orientation to ensure that new hires experience diverse engagements within the company. And of course, our sales team is super eager to get back to face-to-face meetings again – that’s something no amount of technology can fully facilitate. We are very much eager for the limitations and hesitancy around the pandemic to become a thing of the past.
THE FUTURE OF OUR OFFICE
There’s a lot to weigh when thinking about whether and how our company should return to the office. Each business that has an administrative office space needs to grapple with this and consider their own unique circumstances. The guiding principles I use when planning the return to the office are:
- Retain what works well and build on the lessons we learned in 2020
- Maintain our performance metrics and world-class customer service scores
- Ensure everyone in the company feels safe
In May 2021, we experienced a window of marked improvement in everyone’s mood and freedom of movement. I noticed more people using our office once the mask mandates for fully vaccinated people were temporarily dropped. Seeing everyone’s smiling face was delightful, and the positivity was palpable. There’s no doubt we thoroughly enjoy working near our teammates and sharing together.
We followed the CDC guidelines and Executive Orders of our Governor, and thanks to nearly all our staff being vaccinated we were able to temporarily relax our 14-month COVID-19 restrictions in our office. Safety matters have since changed with variant concerns building in the second half of 2021, as many of our staff have loved ones that remain vulnerable to COVID-19 but are not eligible yet for the vaccine. I fully acknowledge that our short period of relaxed limitations is not the same as calling everyone back to the office, which I am not planning to do.
INNOVATING A DEMAND-DRIVEN FACILITY
I look at our office as another collaborative resource, like Microsoft Teams or our Nextiva VoIP phone system. I expect our team to leverage those resources as needed to get work and priorities accomplished.
Our office is well equipped with smart meeting spaces and a solid infrastructure that’ll await the days when it’s safe for us to enjoy again. But unless there’s a compelling business reason in our future for our staff permanently return to our office space, I don’t expect them to.
And I don’t ever plan to issue a company mandate to report to the office, as I don’t see a reason to require physical attendance for anything more than a core office administration team. I’m not sure what we’d gain from a company-wide requirement like this, but I’m certain I know what we’d lose. Any effort I put into our office is going to be focused on adapting it into an appealing and conducive place for collaboration.
We already have 7 defined meeting areas, but I bet we could increase that to 10 with a little ingenuity. I have already slated one of our offices to convert into a recording studio, so we can create educational content for our customers. We are also dedicating space for a hands-on technical training lab to enhance the knowledge of our technicians.
The theme here is to create a fantastic flexible space for our team to learn, share ideas, and grow in their career. Sure, once it’s safe to return again, any individual or team can work out of our office whenever they choose as it’s a resource available to them 24x7. I’ll encourage any employee who finds our office to be the best work environment for them to use it. We’ve already converted multiple desks into versatile workspaces where anyone can readily dock their laptop, log into their phone queues, and enjoy a maximized work environment for as long as they like.
OUR “RETURN TO OFFICE” PLAN
For the sake of the company as a whole, I am motivated to create both compelling resources and a rationale for justifying why someone would point their car towards our parking lot vs. remaining in whatever patterns they have established to be productive over the past year. I don’t want to disrupt what’s working.
I want instead to present new compelling options for our staff to leverage that revolve around professional training and doing work that can best be accomplished on a massive whiteboard or in a professionally designed recording studio.
While I could require all staff to return to our offices by a specific date, I don’t think that is wise, nor aligned with our direction. I would much rather direct my energies towards retaining our hard-won wins from this past year, while looking ahead to designing our space here in Durham to achieve far more than it has before. Thinking about attracting staff back to the office in innovative, focused ways has been a real joy for me… far more than thinking about just a return to the way things were in February 2020. I invite you to share your own thoughts and ideas with me by connecting on LinkedIn. What are innovative ways you are re-imagining your traditional office space?