What We Learned in Our First 100 Days of Reopening Our Office
We reopened Eden HQ 100 days ago.
Since then, we’ve learned a lot, from re-analyzing the process we followed in crafting and communicating our office reopening plan, to how we manage the policy now that we’re back in office, how we iterated on our policy after reopening, and more.
As a People team leader and head of HR, I spend a lot of time researching best practices and market trends. When my team takes on large stakes projects like this one, it’s important to do plenty of research and planning beforehand.
When we first began planning our reopening, most of our peer organizations and the market leaders were also planning their return to office. So, there weren’t that many “here’s what we did” resources available to model our strategy after.
The purpose of this article is to share our experience with reopening an office in the wake of COVID—how we approached planning our reopening, what we learned, and what we would do differently.
Related content: How to Build a Return to Office Plan for Your Team
Planning to reopen our office
We had two main reasons for deciding to reopen our office.
First, several of our department leads valued the in-office presence—especially from those who oversee larger collaborative teams, like engineering. Half of our engineers are based in the San Francisco area (where our head office is) and are used to a highly collaborative work environment, with colleagues close at hand to brainstorm and problem solve with.
Second, while the remote life made it difficult to maintain the work style our technical team preferred, we were increasingly hearing from team members across all departments that people were feeling isolated and missing the social aspect of in person work.
Who was involved in our office reopening planning
Our CEO, myself, and our People Operations Manager began discussing our eventual office reopening from the very start of the pandemic in 2020. But, once people started expressing increased comfort with resuming life during the pandemic and their struggles with isolation, we began to plan for real.
Our serious discussions began in Spring/Summer of 2021 and involved our People team, as well as the entire executive team. Our CTO and Director of Engineering played a prominent role in the policy crafting, as their team made up the majority of our SF-based employees.
How we approached our reopening plan
My team and I approached this project as a major initiative, and did extensive research to try to understand how other companies were approaching reopening. We also focused heavily on researching the reopening plans of major tech companies.
Most importantly, we polled our own company. We found that over 90% of our SF-based team members wanted to come back to the office, just more flexibly than before. They didn’t necessarily want a 40 hour in-office work week, but they wanted to be able to work in person sometimes. From later market surveys we commissioned, our team’s data was consistent with broader findings which identified that 82% of tech employees wanted to come back to an office, but 95% require more flexibility than before. Our SF-based team happened to be slightly more office-oriented than tech’s average.
Outside of market best practice research, we made sure to keep up to date on shifting CDC guidelines, as well as tapping our local network for informal qualitative data points around how they were approaching reopening.
We knew we were going to require a defined number of days in the office each week, as we felt some structure was needed to see positive results, but we weren’t sure yet whether to make those the same days for everyone, or leave it up to the team.
At various points while trying to refine the details, we would hold informal conversations with SF-based team members to solicit their feedback on our outstanding questions—such as how people would feel about two mandatory, set days in the office, whether it felt feasible to arrange meetings in-person to maximize time together, and so on.
Related content: Should You Offer Flexible Work Schedules for Your Team?
Announcing our office reopening plan
We announced to the team in late 2021 (with weeks of lead time) that we would be reopening our office.
Ultimately, we decided on a remote-first hybrid policy company-wide and gave department heads the ability to layer on additional guidelines for their teams. Our engineering leadership decided to establish a twice a week office policy, and everyone else in the company who lived near San Francisco was strongly encouraged to come in twice a week as well.
We settled on reopening our office at the end of January 2022, tying the timeline to the start of a new office lease in a more exciting part of the city for the team, as well as the wrap up of our annual company retreat.
The initial response from the team was receptive. Most people were looking forward to getting a break from their apartments and getting to work in person with their colleagues again and we didn’t experience any strong pushback.
Unfortunately, by the time we were scheduled to reopen, the Omicron variant was in full swing. Many of our team members began to express concerns about the reopening launch date in light of spiking COVID cases.
We made the decision to delay our reopening, and ultimately reopened on April 25, 2022 (again, with weeks of lead time).
Back in the office
Overall, the reopening itself went well.
In the beginning, the hardest part was also exactly what we had all been looking forward to: Working in person was a social experience.
Everyone was excited to catch up with the coworkers they had almost exclusively seen through Zoom screens for more than a year, so some people felt like coming to work meant less time was left for work work than working from home allowed. After about a month or so, the novelty had worn off a bit, and people were used to working together in person again.
For a lot of people, it was similar to starting a new job. We hadn’t only reopened our office, but also moved to a new address. And, we had hired several new employees during the first two years of the pandemic, so many of our team members had never worked from our office before.
Despite these adjustments, everyone quickly developed a good cadence for how to commute, where to get lunch, who to eat with, and everything else that goes into orienting yourself to office life, like how to reserve a desk for the day or submit your health questionnaire.
Related content: How to Reintroduce In-Person Gatherings Into Your Workplace
Things we might have approached differently
There are, of course, changes we have had to make since the initial reopening.
Policies for our distributed team members
We’ve had challenges around how to fairly enable remote team members to come visit HQ, as they seem to want to with greater frequency than expected. This has created risk about some people having more trips than others, which could be inequitable if budget is allocated ad hoc.
To try to create equity for our remote team members, we’ve decided to hold an annual retreat that everyone in the company attends—regardless of their home base. On top of that, each department lead has budget allocated to host in-person team meetups and events by month and quarter to make sure our employees have similar opportunities to engage in team and company culture.
Leveling up our meetings
As most companies rolling out remote options can probably relate to, we quickly realized we needed an IT upgrade. When we were running mixed remote and in-person meetings, we needed a way to see and hear the in-person team members as well as we could see and hear the remote meeting attendees. Oftentimes, there would be side conversations happening in the conference room that computer speakers weren’t picking up, or feedback issues with multiple mics turned on in one room.
Luckily, this was a quick and easy fix.
Setting cultural norms for behavior during mixed meetings has been more of an ongoing process, however. We’re still figuring out the right expectations, whether that means expecting people to be camera on, or allowing team members to maintain that privacy from their home.
It’s a tricky balance, when it’s hard to feel like part of the group if you miss the body language and facial cues of the people you’re talking to.
Related content: Best Practices for Holding Team Meetings in the Hybrid Workplace
From anything-goes to mandatory in-office days (with an honor system)
We also changed our required days policy early on, moving from twice a week required attendance for the engineering team, to specifying Mondays and Thursdays as the required days. It quickly became clear that if we wanted people to be able to follow their preferred work style and get the benefits of working with colleagues again, we should make sure everyone was coming in on the same days.
That said, not everyone always followed the new policy perfectly. We worried that this would create an attitude of “Why am I bothering?” from team members who were sticking to policy, so we shifted the onus of showing up to an honor system policy. Our Director of Engineering took on the responsibility of managing required office attendance, since the policy was put in place to benefit the preferred work style of the engineering team.
Beyond managing attendance on specific teams, our People Operations Manager is responsible for making sure team members are taking their health surveys before coming into the office, validating test results and vaccine boosters, as well as walking unvaccinated employees through their testing requirements during orientation. This has worked well and we haven’t encountered any problems with this aspect of our reopening.
Private versus public?
It quickly became the norm for employees to post in our #sf-office Slack channel if they weren’t going to be able to come into the office.
We learned that the best way for team members to “announce” if they were coming into the office was via booking a desk using our Desk Booking tool, and that if a team member wanted to speak with their manager about whether or not they were going to come into the office, there wasn’t a requirement to make that public and they could always approach their manager privately.
Overall, I think our office re-opening has been successful. Our team members who go in love it, and we often find ourselves with a full house. Plus, more ad hoc social events have sprouted up along the way!
If we could go back in time and redesign the policy from the beginning, there are still a few things I would change.
Ultimately, I would have liked to see our team start some culture building initiatives in the office earlier on than we eventually did. It’s (relatively) easy to research reopening strategies, get the right tools in place, and set policies. It’s harder to go from zero to a hundred and build office culture, when you’ve spent nearly two years working from your living room.
We’re getting back into the swing of establishing office traditions, but it would have been nice to start them sooner. We could have started every Monday being a bagel Monday from the get go, for example, whereas right now we’re still figuring out our weekly programming.
At the end of the day, I don’t think there are any right answers for how to reopen an office. It’s not black and white.
Throughout our first 100 days, we’ve made plenty of iterations to our policies. It’s best to treat any reopening policies you set as a collection of living documents, that can change as the world and your company change. Communication with employees is also key.
Every team is different; every company culture is different. Through candid conversations with everyone on our team, plenty of research, and some trial and error, we found what worked well for us—but you just have to do what you think is best at the moment, be open to feedback and learning, and be willing to change policy along the way.