Some leaders I speak to mention getting “back to normal” or “back to the office” or the importance of “doing things in person.” One said she’d go on a tour of North American offices and demand senior staff come in for face-to-face meetings. Others talk about bringing their full workforces back to the office as soon as possible. Talk to people outside leadership, though, and you hear a different story: “I get so much more done working remotely. I’m through commuting an hour each way five times a week. The flexibility has helped me be more present with my family. I need a better reason than ‘office culture’ to take the train in and sit behind my desk all day.”

That’s a pretty big disconnect.

It’s part of what’s driving the Great Resignation. In the second quarter of 2021, 11.5 million Americans quit their jobs. Surveys show that up to as many as 50% of workers are actively job hunting. Employers are anxious to hold onto their talent as well as find and hire new talent, and everybody is anxious for a little piece of normality — but companies hoping a return to normality means a return to the office should think twice.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed how people see the office and work culture. With no access to the office, employees can’t enjoy the amenities — think free snacks, a fridge full of LaCroix and kombucha, and in-office gyms — that many creative and consumer, tech and health companies used as carrots for new hires or rally-points for office culture. Many leaders seem to want to return to their 2019 culture playbook, but the pandemic has made one thing very clear: If your talent acquisition or employee retention gameplan is focused on office culture, workplace amenities or office perks, you might as well throw it out.

Employees’ realities have shifted dramatically, and leaders must have the courage to see this moment for what it is: a sea change, a hard reset on what offices mean, and an incredible opportunity to completely reimagine the places where we work and collaborate.

What do employees want?

The way work fits into our lives was changing even before the pandemic, and COVID has completely upended it. Here are three key shifts I’ve seen in office culture over the past two years:

  • Even before the pandemic, research showed us that employee priorities were shifting. Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, put as much emphasis on finding a company that aligns with their values and takes an active stance on issues they care about as they put on competitive compensation packages.
  • The pandemic has given a different set of people the opportunity to thrive. Before, office culture favored extroverts who were willing to play office politics and had time for extracurriculars like happy hours and networking events. Now, the playing field is a bit more level for our less-outgoing colleagues, and employees are more likely to be judged on their output and successes. Leaders like to think that working in person leads to chance meetings and spontaneous collaboration, but there’s little evidence that this is true. When it comes to productivity, COVID has proved that it’s quality time that counts, not the number of butt-in-seat hours. This means that leaders must create whole new ways of “walking the halls” and engaging with their teams.
  • Employees are divided on whether to return to the office or continue working from home. A Gallup poll of U.S. workers found that 44% would like to continue working remotely because they prefer it, while 39% favor returning to work in an office. Internationally, it’s the same story: Only 17% of London workers favor returning to the office, although 43% would come back for a substantial raise. Striking a balance that makes both groups happy is the next big challenge for talent acquisition and employee retention.

WE’s latest Brands in Motion report, “The Bravery Mandate,” speaks to this. Since 2019, the number of consumers and B2B decision-makers who expect brands to create stability rose by 30%. At the same time, brands’ ability to sit on the fence or find a cozy middle ground on social issues — and especially social issues that affect their stakeholders — is disappearing. The way forward for brands and brand leaders is to operate bravely, with transparency, stakeholder trust and constant communications at their core. We must be courageous, always willing to listen to feedback and, most of all, radically open to change.

Boldly reimagining the office

As we know, employees can be a brand’s most influential advocates — or its most devastating critics. Brands in Motion found that the No. 1 purpose-related issue, across most sectors, was employees’ needs (their physical, mental and financial well-being).

Brands must be courageous enough to completely re-examine what brings people to work every day. A return-to-office plan that solves for in-person collaboration and flexibility is important, but it’s less important than understanding what drives your employees. For that, you need to talk to them.

Brands in Motion survey respondents rated employees as the group executives need to communicate with the most — more than customers, shareholders or the media. We know from a Brands in Motion report published earlier in 2021, “Rethinking the Purpose and Meaning of Leadership,” that 71% of leaders know that articulating their values is more important now than ever.

For employees, working for a company and leaders with values that align with their own is important. So is making a difference in the world, feeling seen, respected and included, and having the opportunity to do great work. None of those things requires them to be in a physical office.

For some, the office will be a hub for key staff. For others, a basecamp where employees go to train, connect, regroup, and meet with clients and vendors. It might be a collaboration hub where you meet up after a great victory or a tough loss, or it might be an oasis for your team — you might not go there often, but when you do, you leave refreshed, ready and inspired for the next big proposal, partnership or deal.

Australia-based software company Atlassian told employees they can work from home permanently, but rather than close any offices, it will optimize them for “sometimes” use. In the U.S., REI sold its brand-new corporate campus before any employees could even use it and is testing a model that allows employees to work from home for up to five days a week, but also opened small satellite offices for in-person collaboration. Tobi Lütke, CEO of Canadian e-commerce brand Shopify, announced that “Office centricity is over” and outlined a plan to permanently take its workforce to remote. Shopify will close offices through 2021 to rework them to reflect this change, and the brand is running an experiment to learn more about how remote work has affected energy usage and carbon emissions. These are great examples, and you can expect to see #MoreofThis.

It's an overstatement to say that the office is dead, but this is a wake-up call, and it should be inspiring. How often do we get the opportunity to press reset and rethink such a core part of doing business from the ground up? If the office was your culture, you have a chance now to keep the best of it, leave the worst behind, and put employees at the center of everything you do. The boldest brand leaders are listening, thinking and finding ways to do more than just get everybody back to the office — they’re finding ways to rethink the office, and the meaning of the office entirely. Whatever the future holds for office culture, it won’t look anything like it did in 2019, and that’s probably a good thing.