Why I Reversed My Company’s Work From Home Policies And Moved To An Immersive Work Environment
“Things do not change; we change.”
Henry David Thoreau
Like many businesses last year, I decided to shut down my corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, around April 2020. I announced to the team my recommendation to work from home until we get past the crisis. My only focus at the time was my team’s wellbeing. There was uncertainty about when to resume the pre-pandemic working model, but that was not so important in April 2020.
We are a technology firm, and the teams regularly meet over zoom, talk on slack, manage projects using ClickUp, and chat on Google hangouts. We have several team members working from their home offices as they were in other states, and our offshore team works well with the remote teams using these asynchronous tools. I was never worried about our tools and capabilities to work in this new model.
The transition from Working from Office to Working from Home was almost seamless and occurred without any event. We all adapted to barking dogs in the background, yelling kids in the foreground, and other familial noises all around the home as we worked. I accepted these distractions as part of the ‘new normal’ and welcomed the additional time I saved. I used this time for longer than usual walks with my five-year-old Golden Doodle. I also adapted my schedule to enjoy the extra hours I saved from the commute.
As much as I enjoyed more time with my kids, my pet, and at my home, I sensed a growing feeling of complacency in me as the days progressed. I was very focused on meetings, but when I found a block of time between appointments, which was rare, I wanted to relax instead of looking for another problem to solve. I also hated eating my breakfasts and lunches by myself. I heard the term Time Confetti for these blocks of time. Just like candy, they were making me unhealthy. I also felt more tired even though I slept longer than usual and did not drive around too much.
The zoom fatigue while working from home was real for me. On one of my worst days, I saw my team members as just squares on the computer screen. I constantly had to remind myself that my team was as human as me, with their own families, and their struggles were just as pressing or more demanding than mine.
We tried to make it fun and organized Holiday office zoom parties. During one of these events, employees showed off their breakfasts, and we ate “together.” However, it was just not the same as everyone at the same table, sharing a meal. The collective spirit that comes with sharing eye contact and being in the vicinity of each other creates a sense of togetherness that cannot be replicated in remote meetings.
As things started to improve in March 2021, I decided to switch my work location and test my appetite for working from the office. I wanted to experience any resistance to this transition firsthand before making any decisions on my company’s Work from the Home initiative. I started working from the office in March with just one more person — N2N’s Operations Manager, Ronnie Nixon, onsite. Ronnie has been coming to the office daily as part of his role to support the general administration and upkeep of the office. We decided to follow all CDC guidelines on social distancing and wore masks when we were in a room together. We ensured that all desks at the office were equipped with hand sanitizers. We continued following these guidelines until both of us were fully vaccinated.
As far as the work schedule goes, I enjoyed wearing my dry-cleaned clothes and brown Johnston and Murphy McGuffey Perfed Slip-On shoes. Most importantly, the drives to work and returning home in my Mazda CX-5. Over the years, I have made it a habit of listening to audible books and podcasts during my commutes, and getting back into this old routine was an excellent way to start the day. I began my days with an engaging work-related podcast like Wondery’s Business Wars. Wondery’s podcasts usually get me invigorated on my way to work. On my way home, I usually listened to a poetry podcast that would bring me back to my focus on life. Sometimes, I listened to instrumental jazz music stations on Apple Music to set me in the mood as I transitioned from office to home. I realized how much these rituals helped me over the years as I commuted to work and prepared me for a better day at home as I transitioned from being an entrepreneur at work to a single dad at home. Within the first week, I realized how I was more productive with my work and more engaged at home by following these transition routines.
I have seen working from the office to be a lot more appealing in other ways too. There was better lighting all around, and that made me more energetic and excited. There were better furniture, more coffee, and seating arrangements at the office. Most importantly, there were no distractions while I worked to seek my attention while I was focused on a meeting or important tasks. My golden doodle was not craving for treats, or my 52” Samsung TV was not beckoning me to seek out news, or The New Childhood, the latest book from Jordan Shapiro, was not enticing me to read, just a few pages, between my meetings. I always thought I was pretty focused and disciplined when it came to work and my ability to shut down distractions. However, working from home during the last year has tested this assumption. When I found a couple of hours of available time on my schedule, I walked my dog or did other mundane activities around the house.
After seeing the success of the vaccination rollout and the dropping covid numbers, Ronnie and I discussed the plan to open the offices for ‘immersive working.’ I borrowed this phrase from universities focused on ‘immersive learning’ and compared it to ‘virtual learning.’ Working from home is very similar to ‘virtual working,’ though we work in the tech sector, and almost all of the work can be done remotely; I firmly believe that working from home is not the same as working from the office. The team interactions, emotional connections, and interactive whiteboarding sessions cannot be replicated efficiently in ‘virtual working’ environments.
I announced to my team on our ‘Global Scrum’ that N2N was reversing our ‘Optional Work from Office’ Policy for employees working within a 20-mile radius of the company. N2N effectively recommended that all local personnel start working from our corporate offices beginning May 17th, 2021. We picked this date based on the government’s announcement on the availability of vaccines for everyone and also our internal metrics on our employees’ vaccination statuses. I explained to the team that this immersive working environment would be critical for the company’s overall success. More importantly, I advised my team that it will be good for their emotional well-being as well. We announced this date in the first week of April to allow employees to get vaccinated and make daycare arrangements for their kids if necessary. Though we issued this as an expectation, I emphasized to my employees that we will make exceptions on an as-needed basis to accommodate their individual needs.
We are a small company with less than 25 employees, and about 60% of our employees live near the corporate office. I was unsure how they would react to this reversal, but I felt strongly that working from offices would only help team morale and collective well-being. I saw this first hand with my energy levels and evolving routines. Within the two months of working from the office, I worked out more, made more home-cooked meals for myself and my son Varoon, and hung out more with friends and family. All in all, I saw a much better work-life balance during my ‘immersive working’ experience than my ‘virtual working’ experience. I wanted my employees to experience the same. This is the reason for the reversal of the original Work from the Home policy we created at the beginning of the pandemic.
It was only coincidental that CDC issued their new mask guidance for vaccinated people on May 16th, 2021. We were prepared to change desks, offer more office suites, and mandate masks for all employees if needed to support a safe and healthy working environment. Additionally, the more we thought about our ‘Back to Work’ day of May 17th, it became more apparent that we needed to do better than provide bigger office spaces and more frequent janitorial services. I wanted to make up for all the lost team lunches, birthday parties, and social interactions we missed out on over the last year. So, we announced a corporate lunch program. Every day, the company orders lunch from local restaurants, and employees eat these catered meals together. We made this fun by rotating the ordering of lunches between team members, and this allowed them to interact with each other on this and have fun in the process. We also changed the format of our global scrums.
All the team members in my Atlanta office now attend the meeting from our meeting area instead of their desks. This created more interactions amongst us, and employees opened up about their incoming newborns, ill parents, and upcoming weddings. I enjoyed seeing tears in their eyes as they explained the good news. We empathized with each other and shared our fears as many of our family members are in India and suffered from COVID.
Over the last month, we rented a party suite at Truist Park in Atlanta and enjoyed the Braves play Cubs. We watched the baseball game as a team for the very first time. Most of my team members were born in India, just like me, and some of them have never been to a ball game before. The teams learned about baseball rules from YouTube videos and asked questions from more well-versed team members. The group laughed at me as I tried to sing ‘Take me out to the ball game’ and butchered it to the point of Frank Sinatra’s utter disappointment.
We dined at local restaurants and made efforts to get back to the pre-pandemic times. We ate meals together, bought each other drinks, cheered for Atlanta Braves as a group, and most importantly, we enjoyed each others’ company, just like we did before the pandemic.
Most companies decided to shut down their offices and advised their employees to work from home to protect their physical health. I strongly think that entrepreneurs should rethink this decision to protect the emotional health of their employees. As a small business owner myself, I firmly believe that doing so will help struggling businesses like restaurants, dry cleaners, and franchise owners get back to normal.