The return-to-the-workplace experiment

July 9, 2021

Dear Changemakers,

These days, my conversations inevitably begin, “What is your organization doing for reopening?” and I am struck by how many different answers I hear: fully remote, hybrid, mandated in-office days, staggered schedules, fluid schedules, staged return, and dozens of other variations.

Frankly, I am surprised so many CEOs have announced their new postpandemic office and remote work policies with great certainty about what will work for their organization. We have learned a lot about remote work this past year, but we know so little about how hybrid work will function. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the Urban Institute, home to so many social scientists, is using the next six-month period to experiment before landing on a long-term set of policies and office norms.

Urban already has a knowledge base to build upon. The past year taught us how much we can accomplish when we are all apart, and it showed us what we lose in community and connection when we cannot come together. We also gained greater understanding of inequities baked into office culture we must take great care not to reestablish. In fact, more and more reports are surfacing that “microaggressions at the office can make remote work even more appealing for some staff.”

Each of us also learned something about our own preferences and productivity. Some relished being away from the office and skipping the commute, others wished for more separation between work and home, and some desired a little of both. I fall into the mixed-methods category: I am not a productive writer when I’m in my Urban office, but, at times, I desperately need to escape the guest bedroom that’s doubled as my office since March of 2020 and to see people in person! I also learned I enjoy working outside on my porch, amid soothing birdsong and wind through the trees. I plan to continue working outdoors when possible.

Still, truth be told, 2020 was the hardest and most unrelentingly exhausting year of my life. It was also terrible for many at Urban, who faced far greater challenges than I. Yet, to some degree, we all were—and remain—the privileged ones: during the pandemic, we continued earning a living while working from our kitchens, bedrooms, and patios. And we got to serve a higher purpose by directly or indirectly helping policymakers respond to the unprecedented challenges and ameliorate the inequities the pandemic so starkly revealed.

Throughout, each of us has learned what works for us. With diverse workstyles, home circumstances, and commutes, Urban staff have made clear their preference for flexibility and hybrid work in the short and long term. So, initially, Urban will reopen its office next week on a wholly voluntary basis—with almost every employee able to pick the schedule and location they prefer. Many of my colleagues will remain remote, scattered across the country. And over the next six months, Urban will do what we do best: learn and gather evidence about the hybrid work environment. We are the experiment.

We will be examining many questions, including the following:

  • What workplace culture does hybrid work create? What effect could it have on relationships and collaboration among colleagues?
  • How well will our meeting platforms and technology work, if only half of a meeting’s participants are in the room?
  • Will hallway conversations and chance encounters leave some people out? How do we ensure fully remote staff are not disadvantaged professionally or feel excluded?
  • What techniques can managers use to enhance hybrid communication and connection?
  • Can we be as productive as when we were all in the office and then, all at home?
  • What strategies will help us continue making progress on equity, inclusion, and belonging in a blended work environment?

Based on the evidence Urban gathers during our hybrid pilot period, we plan to adapt policies for telecommuting and remote work for 2022 and invest in the technology proven to support them. Throughout, Urban is committed to ensuring flexibility, equity, safety, a sense of community, and continued productivity for our staff.

I look forward to sharing with you what we learn. In the meantime, please tell me, what is your organization learning as it explores its approach to returning to the workplace?

Warmly,
Sarah