Will employees be expected to return to the office full-time? Every organization whose team made the switch to remote work during COVID-19 is answering that question now, as regulations gradually loosen and make the office a viable work location again.

Here’s how we’ve approached the conversation at Kittelson, including five ways we’re seeking to operate inclusively and intentionally in the hybrid work environment in which we find ourselves.

Kittelson’s Approach to the Work-state Conversation

Our stance on the “returning to the office” conversation can be summed up as follows: We are operating under the assumption that we can honor the individual’s preferred work-state, while continuing to serve our clients, performing necessary job functions, and providing learning and growth opportunities. To borrow a line that Jim Jacobi, PE of Walter P Moore presented at the 2021 ACEC Convention and Legislative Summit: “Work is what we do, not where we go.”

This is first and foremost an extension of our identity as a trust-based firm. We expect all staff to act with ownership and take responsibility for themselves and the people around them, a principle that has guided our decision-making throughout since the firm’s founding and as we navigated COVID-19.

It’s also a reflection of what we learned when we sought company input through several forums this spring, including an anonymous survey to get a read on current preferences. The range of preferences was unmistakable, with some employees desiring to maintain the work-from-home life, others eager to get back to the office, and many preferences in between. The takeaway from this information seemed clear: a hybrid model is likely and will allow us to best leverage the talents of our diverse staff while also supporting their various needs and contexts.

We look forward to learning together as we continue to explore what it means to be “one firm in many locations.” And of course, as transportation enthusiasts, we can’t help but think about the impact of hybrid work-states on peak hour work commute times!

Snapshot from a recent all-staff meeting, one of many scenarios that calls on us to be innovative and inclusive as transition into a hybrid work environment.


Five Ways to Deliberately Seek Inclusion in a Hybrid Work Environment

As we prepare to test out this flexible environment, we’re aware of potential challenges for both connection and inclusion as we staff projects and connect with one another. We know we will learn and adjust as we go, but can also take steps now to be deliberate in seeking inclusion. At a recent all-staff meeting, we explored the following five strategies:

  • Take time at the beginning or end of meetings for informal conversation. This is one way we can continue to build relationships without eating at the same lunch table or catching one another in the hallway.
  • Include others and meet them where they are. Practically speaking, this looks like conducting each meeting to suit the person who is “furthest away” – perhaps giving staff who are calling in a chance to speak before opening the dialogue to those in the room. It also means taking a “gut check” if you start a “hallway conversation” in the office – if there is someone you would tap if they were in the office with you, stop and bring them into this hallway conversation via phone or video.
  • Find out and honor your project team members’ preferred and most effective mode of communication. This meets one of our other deeply held values of “serve others first.” Some team members prefer the ad hoc phone call, others like the structure of a scheduled meeting, and others prefer to knock out a challenge with a few instant messages. As we continue to build relationships and collaborate with one another, we can seek to learn and respect these preferences.
  • Instead of setting up general check-ins, try scheduling a time to collaborate around an idea or problem. Virtual check-in burnouts are real.  We also know that collaboration is greater than the sum of original ideas. Collaboration connects people, and from both a relationship and productivity standpoint, if centered around a topic or a problem to solve can be a more meaningful use of time than an agenda-less check-in.
  • Move forward with an innovation and learning mindset. Ultimately, the conversation isn’t about “returning” to anything, even if some employees do choose to work in the office full-time again. To have an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset means taking what we’ve learned and what we may have missed before, and channeling those lessons into a new normal that reflects our growth and increased understanding.

To have an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset means taking what we’ve learned and what we may have missed before, and channeling those lessons into a new normal that reflects our growth and increased understanding.

What Are Your Top Tips?

What strategies is your organization employing to foster connection while honoring individual work preferences? We love sharing ideas, and want to learn from you. Comment on our LinkedIn post or email any of us directly to talk further about this important topic!