Back To The Office--What's Working - The Good, the Bad & The Ugly

 By Ray Birch CUToday

MADISON, Wis.—As employees are being called back to the office, are credit unions effectively executing the hybrid work environment? A new analysis by the Filene Research Institute offers some answers on what’s working and what is not.

According to Filene, the data show the response is mixed. The credit unions that are handling the current shift well are doing so by engaging employees and building trust, while those that are failing in the transition are losing leadership credibility, staff and are stifling the innovation that’s needed to drive the organization forward.

Filene Back to Work Feature

“Back to office policies often fall in the crosshairs of worker concerns these days, particularly for white collar workers,” said Paul Dionne during a recent Filene webinar on the hybrid work environment. “It's a source of uncertainty. It's a source of frustration. And so this has become a contentious topic and it affects leaders, frontline staff, back office staff and managers who are often caught in the middle.”


Paul Dionne

Dionne, research director at Filene, explained the study shows many workers have found work from home and the hybrid work environment to be beneficial for work-life balance, and many credit union leaders have noted cost savings by reducing the size of their physical workspaces. Others have noted gains in equity and inclusion, he said.

“But there are also trade-offs,” explained Dionne. “There are changes that need to be reckoned with for communication, for culture and for workflows. There is no one way to ensure the success of hybrid work arrangements in a long-term setting without investment and understanding when and how hybrid work actually operates effectively. And it doesn't take an expert to see there is a great deal of uncertainty and tension around this topic.”

The Good, the Bad & The Ugly

Sekou Bermiss, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, who also is a Fellow with Filene, pointed to what he described as “good, the bad and the ugly of all this.”

The good is that credit unions are not just going with their gut instinct about the return to the physical workplace, they are relying on data for guidance, he said.

“We're using a data-forward approach for the most part,” said Bermiss, who was part of the Filene team conducting research on the issue. “Credit unions have done a ton of surveying of their employees, about what they wanted, at various points during the pandemic, trying to get a sense of how comfortable people are with work, coming in, etc. They are using that data to help guide their policy choices.”

The More Nebulous Challenge

In addition to the major decisions related to how the new workplace will physically look and how many offices will continue to remain open, Filene Founding Partner Doug Leighton said there is another more nebulous challenge with a hybrid work environment, and that is getting the culture right.


Sekou Bermiss

“What does this mean for the culture? How does the culture evolve, when so much of culture was centered around being together, and being in the office?” asked Leighton, who was also part of the research team. “And there are those mythical water cooler moments and more. How do you create those types of connections if somebody is only coming in a couple days a week, or only coming in as appropriate for their role?”

In what won’t come as much of a surprise, Filene’s research found many workers now value their remote working status as much as they do their paycheck. Leighton said researches spoke with a large number of credit union staff across all levels, and “all but one said they would leave the organization if they were told that they had to be in the office full time.”

Not Just About ‘Butts in Seats’

Another trend the research identified is managers need to evolve from “observation to output.”

“Managing is made more difficult now,” said Leighton. “Many managers would view their role as counting butts and seats and making sure that everybody is in the office. It was about ensuring there was productivity. Now, that is made more difficult when you can't necessarily look across the way and observe somebody's working, you have to trust that they are working and delivering the output that you desire.”

Bermiss said the research has also uncovered increased concerns today around maintaining trust among the team.

“Working in a hybrid form, because of the lack of observability, there's a good reason for both leadership and management and frontline workers to be a little distrustful about what the other side is telling them,” Bermiss said. “For example, a leader at one credit union discovered there were two employees during the pandemic (who) had taken on another full-time job while keeping their role at the credit union. They were only able to do this because of the remote work environment. Those kinds of things shrink away at the trust leaders have. It's only one or two employees, but it happens.”

‘Why Are We Here?’

On the employee side of the trust equation is how employers are handling the call back to work, said Bermiss.

“Employees, many begrudgingly, would come back to work and say, ‘Why are we here? Are we here just to make the bosses jobs easier? Or are we here to make our jobs better? Because I don't feel like my job is better by coming in.’”

Employees are also questioning whether the return to the office is best for the leaders, and not really what is best for staff and the organization, Bermiss said.

“These may be small things, but they degrade trust,” he said.

Leighton noted staff issues really begin to build when the organization is not consistent with enforcement of the back-to-the-office policies.

“The hybrid policy may be that everybody comes in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” said Leighton. “It creates consistency across the entire organization. But the reality is it doesn't reflect the needs of the role, it doesn't reflect the needs of the individual. And what you see quite frequently is that policies are unequally enforced. So, those that are going in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are seeing that hardly anybody is there and are questioning why they are coming in. They are wondering if their leaders are thinking in the employees’ best interests and that degrades trust.”

The Effective Credit Unions

What effective credit unions are doing, according to Leighton, is investigating every single role and then making a determination about how that role can best be performed.

“Then, you have a framework with which to work from,” said Leighton. “That's where I think you make this evolution from the crisis mode to the future of work. This is when it becomes embedded within the organization, and it becomes embedded based on individual roles. You can now best determine whether employees need to be in the office or at the branch, or whether work can be done in a hybrid manner.”

Stifling Creat…, Um, Whatever

Bermiss said the research shows that remote work can stifle creativity within an organization. He said employees charged with being creative function best when they are comfortable in a group in which they can say anything and not feel like their remarks, as well as when there is significant camaraderie.

But he said remote work can steal away this mutual trust.

“This is where remote work can actually be the most detrimental,” he said. “In a remote setting, there is not the same amount of goodwill, relationship, friendship—pure friendship…I think this can have a dampening effect on innovation. Credit unions should be thinking about how can they make sure people are developing those relationships in a hybrid work environment so they can feel comfortable, be creative and try new things.”