How one company found the secret to RTO success: Love (and unforced hybrid work)

The pandemic has rocked everyone’s world, from the way we live and socialize to how we think about life itself. Many of us are still dealing with the horrors of lives lost and health issues from which we can never truly recover. For most of us, the last few years have drastically changed the way we work, from the where to the how. Although it has been over three years now since the world shut down, the impact the pandemic has on our lives continues–whether we are aware of it or not.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, the corporate world worked entirely from home. We turned to tools like Zoom and Slack in order to keep the business going and stay connected to one another. Most companies had to either make cuts or furlough a chunk of their people. Some did so out of necessity to survive while others used it as the catalyst to “trim the fat.” Those who cut too thin learned the hard way that having fewer people does not always equate to efficiency. The 9 to 5 quickly became the 7 to 10: working from the crack of dawn to late at night. The costly effect of burnout soon took hold, resulting in regrettable churn. That, coupled with the YOLO (You Only Live Once) philosophy taking the workforce by storm, had countless companies losing great talent. We were no exception.

As time passed and the fear of COVID-19 dissipated, most companies forced a hybrid model upon their employees. Some, particularly within the finance and legal sectors, reinstated pre-pandemic norms demanding their people come in five days a week–a shock to their employees’ new way of life.

Charting your own course

In such a competitive market, it is crucial to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Although it was important to understand what our competitors were doing, we were not in the business of mimicking policies just because they were popular mandates from the bigwigs who sat in ivory towers far removed from the pulse of their people. Unlike most companies in our space, we listened to our people carefully, empathized with their feelings, and most importantly, saw the writing on the wall: Why do we need to go back to the office when we have been more successful these past few years at home than ever before? Why force us to lower our quality of life by traveling into a dangerous city on an even more dangerous public transit system? We are so much more productive at home. We are saving so much money not having to commute. We moved to different states during the pandemic. All of these sentiments–and more–were true and could not be denied with a straight face. The veil had been lifted. We were more successful than we could ever have imagined–and our people were far happier.

It became quickly clear that we couldn’t go back to business as usual. And if we were being truly honest with ourselves, there were some major advantages for the company as well. Significant savings in rent and pantry items could not be denied. Our footprint in one of the most expensive cities in the world had shrunk. We were finding great talent everywhere in the country because we were no longer handcuffed to a certain geographical radius.

While all this sounded logical, we knew that eventually, people would want and need human interaction with their coworkers. We have always had such an incredible culture at Undertone and the last thing we wanted was to jeopardize that! We understood the risks: less human interaction leads to weaker relationships, which leads to higher attrition. There is also the issue of career development, particularly for the Gen Z population. Heck, a working paper from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa, and Harvard, found that remote workers are likely to pay a hidden professional penalty. While remote work was indeed found to foster higher productivity, it also diminishes the amount of real-time feedback, a crucial factor in career development. The theory is that younger people are less likely to learn, improve their skills, or get promoted, and therefore, will be more likely to jump ship. This all seems very reasonable and makes sense, right? But if this theory is truly sound, why wasn’t it happening to us? Why were we seeing just the opposite? What was our secret sauce?

The secret sauce

We believe it’s our unforced hybrid model–a work-from-anywhere policy that truly tapped into some of the most powerful motivators: being heard and valued. We understood how important intrinsic motivators are and used them as our compass. Whenever we introduce a policy or program, we always ask ourselves the following questions: Will this program foster employee engagement and well-being? Will this enhance the employee’s feeling of purpose, of being respected and appreciated? Does the success of this policy rely on trusting our employees and do we have the courage to take that leap of faith? For us, the answers were a resounding “Yes!”

Our policy allows employees to use the office as much or as little as they like. With our headquarters in New York City and shared office spaces around the country, employees can come and go as they please. Apart from the occasional mandatory meetings a few times a year, our employees have the invaluable flexibility of working in a way that works for them.

Don’t get me wrong. The decision was not made without reticence. Like with all new things, there is always an element of risk. Fortunately, this bet paid off. In fact, we hit the jackpot! Since we introduced this policy back in 2021, we have seen employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention go up with each passing year.

A good culture is important in any organization’s survival. A great culture is key to the success of an unforced hybrid model to work. I often hear, “Wow, you are all so very close! How do you have such an amazing relationship with your team, especially not working in person with one another on a regular basis? What is your secret?”

At the risk of sounding too sappy, I always reply that our secret is authentic love and respect for one another. Nothing works without this critical ingredient. You must truly care about your team. You must see and treat them as people, not as human resources. Hiring great talent results in building a work family that shares these values. Authenticity can be felt regardless of distance. The best laughs or most heartfelt conversations have occurred on Zoom because the old saying is true: Love has no bounds.

But as another great saying goes, sometimes love is not enough. To retain great talent, you
must develop great talent. Whenever possible, we conduct training in person as we find it most effective. We have a robust training program that offers both internal and external sales training, management training, interview training, and soft skills training such as time and stress management training, in addition to our tuition reimbursement program. We are big believers in giving an employee the ability and tools to continue to grow, whether it’s in or outside their current field.

Another essential ingredient is feedback, providing it often and in real-time. Out of sight mustn’t be out of mind. We provide our managers with guidelines about the social and behavioral expectations we have of them. We plan for many touchpoints. Managers develop a customized feedback plan that best suits the needs of their teams. Some teams need more in-person collaboration while others work best on their own–another example of how we don’t force a one-size-fits-all approach.

It’s fascinating to see how people actually do come in on a regular basis, not because they have to but because they choose to. It’s purely psychological: If they were forced to come in, they would most likely do so begrudgingly. Some teams enjoy coming in one or two times a week while others prefer three times a week. Some teams will meet in person only on a quarterly basis due to distance or preference. And that’s OK too. To ensure everyone meets on a company-wide basis, Undertone conducts a yearly offsite summit where we all get together to strategize and socialize. This is an awesome opportunity to meet everyone–especially the new hires–in a fun and relaxed environment.

If you were to speak to every single one of our new hires, they would all say that our unforced hybrid policy was a major deciding factor in accepting our offer. When we hear a new sales executive say, “I told my spouse I can’t wait to make loads of money for Undertone because of how they treat their people,” it makes us proud and encourages us to continue on our path. This model, without a doubt, works. But only with the right attitude, the right people, and the guts to trust one another.

Louise Peddell is Undertone’s VP of human resources, (a Perion company).

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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