Opinion: Back to the office? There’s a better way

Elaine Thomley, right, is vice president, finance growth leader, for Stamford-based Synchrony.

Elaine Thomley, right, is vice president, finance growth leader, for Stamford-based Synchrony.

Contributed photo

Those return-to-office calls are getting louder.

After several false starts in the past two years, COVID-19 is finally receding enough that companies are serious about getting employees back to their desks.

Their reasons seem logical on the surface. In-person work promotes collaboration. Meeting up at the water cooler with colleagues is an opportunity for unplanned moments of connection and synergy.

All true, of course. But this yearning for the “old normal” ignores something important: during the pandemic, companies fundamentally reinvented work itself. It’s not only — or even mostly — a technological transformation, although tools such as videoconferencing, smartphones and apps served as catalysts of change.

The transformation is essentially social. Humans, like they always do, figured out how to adapt to unprecedented circumstances. Ignoring this reality strikes me as misguided and counterproductive.

I get it — old habits die hard. In my career, I have worked in three industries: private equity, consulting, and — most recently — financial services. I cannot imagine fields that are more dedicated to face time, to being in the room. The FOMO is real.

But times have changed. Employees across industries have performed extremely well while working remote during the pandemic. And they know it. We should build on this success, not consign it to history.

I’ve seen first-hand that it can work. As finance leader at Synchrony, a financial services company, I manage a team of professionals domestically and internationally. Prior to the pandemic, we went into the office five days a week. When COVID-19 struck, my company quickly got more than 16,000 employees up and running from home — providing computers, collaboration technology, specialized security systems, and support.

It started out as a temporary solution, but then an amazing thing happened. We saw that we were working more effectively than ever before. Some things really surprised me. For example, several formerly reticent members of my team suddenly were speaking up, participating in group discussions and contributing ideas. I realized that people who are intimidated by face-to-face interactions often find their voices in a virtual setting. When everybody in the meeting is represented within an identically sized rectangle on a computer screen, it levels the playing field.

In addition, I relished having more time at home with my family — sharing an afternoon snack with my son and daughter or picking up my son at the bus stop after school and taking him to tennis or soccer practice. I even borrowed some of the new language we were learning from work, implementing short daily “stand-ups” with my son to review his homework plan for the day. The stress of rushing between work and home, the feeling of being pulled in two directions at once, was gone. That was a major improvement in my life, and my family’s, too.

A hybrid solution

In September 2021, my company decided to make a “hybrid” model of work for all employees. You could choose to work remote, work in an office or a combination of the two. However, even in-office employees are firmly encouraged to work from home at least two days a week. That promotes balance for all and ensures those working remote full time don’t feel they are missing out.

I chose full-time remote and haven’t looked back. Today there is a mix of employees on my team who have chosen the option to work from home. We are using new tools and changing behaviors to ensure inclusivity across all mediums where people have chosen to work. We are happier and more productive.

Remote doesn’t mean you never go to the office. In the past six months, I’ve gone to the office for team meetings, town halls, meetings with leaders, or just to meet co-workers that I have not seen in person since the pandemic started. And when I’ve gone in, I’ve also noticed that our spaces looked and felt different — they were more purpose driven. There were set areas for brainstorming and collaboration. We were experimenting with new tools and technologies to make sure hybrid meetings worked well.

Several people (non-Synchrony employees) have asked me: What about face time with the boss? Won’t your career suffer as a remote employee? The honest answer is I’m not afraid of being overlooked for a career opportunity, because the directive to move to this new way of working comes from the very top: our CEO and his direct reports. In fact, several of my friends and colleagues who are now full-time remote have been promoted.

Our senior executives support the new model because it has created a more effective, collaborative and loyal workforce. Employees are happy they can integrate work into their lives in a way that doesn’t relegate life to the losing end of the bargain.

Everybody wins. For me, the lesson is undeniable: sometimes the old way of doing things should stay in the past, especially when the “new normal” is a big improvement.

Elaine Thomley is vice president, finance growth leader, for Stamford-based Synchrony.