When I joined the company in late 2016, I never would have imagined I’d oversee:
- An office relocation
- A critical transition to remote working
- A much anticipated return-to-office following the lift of COVID restrictions
But with a few key ingredients, I’ve been able to pull off all of the above. The recipe is simple: communication, collaboration, and good old fashion teamwork.
With equal parts of each, you can set yourself and your team up for success.
Robin is a very people-centric company. So our focus has always been balancing the needs of our business with the needs of our people.
Today, I want to give you an in-depth look at the strategy behind Robin's return to office, the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and how I plan to improve the employee experience moving forward.
Refining the Workplace on Day One
When I first joined Robin, the company was right in the middle of a big office relocation, moving from Downtown Crossing to Fort Point, where we are now.
Initially, we started out on one whole floor, which seemed like much more space than what we needed at the time. But as we scaled, particularly our engineering and sales teams, desks began filling up quickly, and I saw the writing on the wall: we were going to need a bigger boat.
We really wanted to optimize the space for our entire team and provide those much-needed amenities to help people get their jobs done. And since our own product is about making sure employees have the right number of spaces and the right kinds of spaces to accommodate any possible need, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for Robin to create the hybrid workplace we believe in so deeply.
So, expand we did. We took over an additional floor downstairs, giving us much more room to work with. Little did I know this office relocation experience would be so critical to the development of our return-to-office plan.
Practice for the Pivot to Remote Work
It was almost like a crash course in adaptability, which helped me tremendously in organizing Robin’s post-COVID homecoming.
You see, up until March of 2020, we were constantly in trial-and-error mode, experimenting with different office layouts and work spaces to find the optimal design for employees.
That included adding more flexible work areas, like huddle rooms and pods. It was all about adapting the office to meet our peoples' needs. By January of 2020, we were bursting at the seams and ready to expand again.
But then the pandemic hit, and in March, we all went remote.
Challenges of Remote Work due to COVID-19
We always had the option to work from home when needed, but this was the first time we all worked remotely for such a long period of time.
That in itself posed a challenge for the operations team, because while some people were fine with their laptops and power cables, others needed more office-specific gear to work on larger projects.
And since we weren't in any position to purchase new equipment for each employee's home office, I allowed people to request items from the office that I could easily grab and pop in the mail. Luckily, we were able to work out the kinks pretty fast.
Summertime Signals a Return to Office
As the summer weather was approaching and people began going outside again, we said to ourselves, "Let's try to get the office open in July." So that became our goal.
In May of 2020, we put a consulting crew together to guide the buildout of our new COVID-safe office plan, and CFO John O’Donnell oversaw the project to make sure we stayed on track to meet the deadline.
In the meantime, I went ahead and stocked both floors with all the necessities—paper towels, tissues, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, you name it. I also bought new signage for doorways and a pack of those social distance stickers that go on the floor to designate six feet of space.
I wanted to give people visual indicators so they could easily direct themselves around the office while maintaining personal safety. On top of that, our crew worked together moving all the furniture to guarantee employees even more physical space.
Communication is Key to Comfortable Return
To say communication was key would be an understatement.
We made sure to give people as much information as possible so they could feel comfortable returning to the office. As opening day approached, we issued an FAQ list with questions like "When is the building reopening?" and "Where's my stuff?"—everything you'd need to know about coming back after such a long lapse.
I also used the Notion app to share info with the whole team. It's more of a cool, digestible way to exchange information. So within the app, I created an easy-to-read guide explaining our return-to-office plan, and I added photos of our proposed layout, helpful charts, and any new changes employees might need to know. Along with Notion, I also used Robin's Slack channel to communicate reopening logistics.
Our thinking was, "How do we break people in and make them feel comfortable about coming back?" So we determined a staggered return would be best. I implemented a sign-up process for employees wanting to use the office, using Robin's Slack channel to distribute communication.
In Slack, we included a form that listed all conditions people had to abide by in order to get access, followed by a daily quiz they had to take to attest they weren't feeling sick. Once employees read the form and took the quiz, I was able to unlock their badges, giving them access to the building. As more and more people opted in, we'd continue to grow that Slack channel with all pertinent info.
Balancing Employee Excitement with Safety Protocols
Not everything was smooth sailing though.
For one, it was a challenge keeping everyone split between two floors. When people started coming back into the office, they all wanted to hang out with each other, and I said, "Guys, you're ruining my plans!" So in hindsight, it wasn't a great idea.
The split-floor strategy just didn't work for Robin's environment because there wasn't a way to predict people's needs on a daily basis. For our employees, everyday is different, so it was nearly impossible for us to dictate where they could sit. We realized this just wasn't a feasible solution, so we decided to switch gears and focus more on creating the safest environment possible for all employees.
Respecting Employee Boundaries
Some people were nervous about coming back to the office, justifiably so. But that's why we always emphasized the office as an option, not a requirement.
We never wanted to catch people off guard with new office plans or changes in safety measures, so we made sure to keep them informed along every step of the way. That open communication with teams was critical in overcoming any anxieties or employee pushback.
Employee Feedback Helps Customize the Hybrid Workplace Experience
Fortunately, we had the benefit of our own product to view desk analytics, so I could see our daily occupancy and refine space as needed to accommodate everyone's needs. We distributed surveys throughout the entire process, offered employees an anonymous feedback drop, and performed little pulse checks in Slack.
Our People team, led by Elizabeth Fierman and Libby Kiely, also sent periodic temp checks to employees asking, "How's it going? Having a good time working at home? When do you think you'll come back? What's impacting your return?" We wanted to support our people's decisions while trying to determine a baseline of how they'll want to work in the future.
Reshaping Robin for the Future of work
Looking ahead, I think hybrid meeting technology is going to be a major focus for us. We want to make sure our people have a seamless workplace experience with the opportunity to work in whatever way possible, so long as it meets their specific needs.
I also want to leverage our data to help us be more strategic about office planning. And on a lighter note, I want to make the Robin office a central location for employee meet-ups, so I'm hoping to create clear event spaces for all that fun stuff. It's important!