Do you want to keep working from home, or are you the type who thrives in the office setting? And how should companies accommodate workers after the pandemic upended everything we once knew about the workplace?

Those are questions being asked by workers and companies alike across the state following the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that has forced hundreds of thousands of Georgians to work from home. 

After a year and a half of intense work from the confines of home, Georgia employers are looking for a way to bring people back into the office while transforming their expectations of the workplace. 

While CDC guidance indicates that it’s safe to return back to the office, 58% of people who worked remotely during the pandemic said they would quit their job if they weren’t allowed to continue doing so in their current position, according to an April survey from career site FlexJobs

To fully understand workers’ needs, some Atlanta-based companies are engaging with their employees on an individual level. 

“We asked everyone in our company: What’s most important to you?” said Missy Taylor, the chief operating officer of Dagger, a marketing agency in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward whose clients include Aflac and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. 

Dagger employees were mostly concerned about flexibility, safety, and social activities in the office. After hearing their concerns — and taking them into consideration — Dagger's leadership developed a phased approach to the return-to-work transition, beginning with a hybrid model. 

Phase One of the company's plan will begin after Labor Day, where employees will spend two to three days in the office and two to three days out of the office.

Taylor and Christofer Peterson, a senior vice president with the company, both view returning to work as a “transformation” rather than a transition back to the way things used to be. After living in the work-from-home environment, employees’ expectations have shifted. 

“How do we welcome our team back in a bit of a paradigm shift so it’s no longer about post-COVID?” Peterson said. "How do we help our team look beyond that?"

Dagger photo 2

Many offices across the state sat largely empty for weeks and months. Companies such as marketing agency Dagger, whose office is pictured here, had to adapt quickly to accommodate their workers.

Credit: Courtesy of Dagger

Sela Missirian, the vice president of strategy and business development at Brown Bag Marketing, also understands the importance of catering to a company’s culture. Her leadership team spoke with every employee to understand their needs and concerns, and accommodated its employees who wanted to wait until they were fully vaccinated to return to the office. 

The leadership at Mailchimp, a tech and email marketing company headquartered in Atlanta with offices in New York, California and Canada, listened when employees began to have new values and expectations after working from home.

For the remainder of 2021, its employees can choose whether they want to work from home, in the office or a combination of both — and the company won’t be fully back in the office until 2022.

“Each individual employee has had their own experience from the most challenging where people have actually experienced death, dying and illness in their families or in their networks, right through to some people that have actually really thrived working from home in a new environment,” said Robin White, the chief people and culture officer at Mailchimp.

“So for us, it was important to kind of engage with every person we possibly could in the organization to really understand the diversity of those perspectives,” White added.

Mailchimp sent out a survey to its 1,200 employees earlier this year to better understand what they wanted from work. In addition to safety and flexibility, one of employees' chief concerns was missing out on the social environment of the office — like the smaller moments in between meetings.

“Socialization, when it’s going well, makes us feel more fulfilled,” said Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University. “It’s part of what many of us like about the workplace: the people that we work with, a sense of connection.”

For the leadership at Sterling Seacrest Partners, coming back to the office was important not only for socialization, but also for the best training and development of its employees. The risk management company had most of its employees teleworking for two days a week before the pandemic and has returned to that model for most of its employees. (Watch the the company's funny video welcoming employees back to the office by clicking here.) 

“So much of what we do is coaching, mentoring and development of our colleagues,” CEO Jim Bailey said. “It’s very difficult, I think, for companies to mentor and develop their team members from a remote setting.” 

Being able to bounce ideas off of other employees in the workplace can lead to better ideas and better teamwork, said Thomas Smith, associate professor at the Emory Goizueta Business School.

“There are reasons why companies hire people to work with each other,” Smith said. “It’s because they truly can generate higher productivity from each other, because they have different perspectives, different sets of ideas, a different way of doing things.”

Although some companies say in-person training is essential, Mailchimp's White recognizes that more employees are asking for more freedom in where they physically work — whether it be at home or in the office. Finding a balance between this freedom and building employee skills will be a key challenge for business leaders during the return-to-work transition, White said.

“Any organization has to navigate this very carefully," he said. "How do we equip our workers with the skills to enable them to make the right choices for them?”

Mailchimp is also navigating its employees' mental health needs after the pandemic brought burnout and psychological stress. About a fifth of U.S. adults are experiencing high levels of psychological distress due to the pandemic, according to Pew Research

“There’s been a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, a lot of existential angst, clearly a lot of grief, anger, sadness, not being able to enjoy things,” said Kaslow, the Emory psychiatry professor. “We’ve also seen the effects of racial injustice and economic instability that has compounded these difficulties for lots of people.”

To accommodate its employees' mental health needs, Mailchimp has provided workers with a resource that connects employees with mental health coaches without having to go through their primary care provider. 

“Thinking about how we mitigate against burnout is really important for us,” White said. 

Employers that aim to prioritize employees’ mental health in their return-to-work plans will have to tailor plans around what workers are asking for, according to Kaslow. While not an easy feat, Kaslow believes these companies will reap the benefits.

“the employers that are going to work with people and have their jobs more tailored to realities of the work and realities of their life, they’re going to be the employers with the most-satisfied employees,” Kaslow said. “When employees are more satisfied, they work better.”