Taking Out a New Lease (Literally) On Business Life
When I sent the email to our team in the early morning of March 13 of 2020 letting them know that we’d be closing our office for the next 2 weeks, given the suddenly growing concern about COVID-19, I couldn’t have imagined that we’d never return.
What transpired over the next 19 months is hard to describe, and hard to fathom, even after living through it. Pandemic, social unrest, protests, riots, the great resignation, a rebuilding and now a renewed focus.
Our firm had been in Portland’s historic downtown Bullier Building since July of 2012, and in our current suite since spring of 2014. Over the years we had made the space our own with continual expansion, buildouts, remodels, mural paintings, in-person events and lots of love. I was always proud to tell clients, prospects, partners and friends that our office was downtown; there was a certain clout that seemed to come with that.
As the days of quarantine stretched on with businesses closed, homelessness on the rise and riots a mainstay, downtown seemed to take one hit after another. As a firm our focus turned to surviving the pandemic, keeping our clients happy and our team in place. For me, my attention was on being the best leader I could be, but in a way that was not my most natural – through a screen, away from my people. I kept the hope alive and my intentions clear about returning to the office when it was safe to do so.
We closed the book on 2020, breathing a collective sigh of relief and expecting, hoping, trusting that 2021 would be better. Surely, it would be better, right?
And yes, it was better. Despite a sluggish start, by spring the economy started to rebound. We saw client work steadily increasing and exciting new projects coming through the pipeline. But we also saw change. The team that we’d held close throughout 2020 started to shift. People started evaluating life, careers, passions. We started seeing people who had been part of our team for many years make choices to freelance, pursue completely new careers, move to yet undiscovered cities and simply pause to consider “what’s next?”
By late summer 2021, our team started returning to our downtown Portland office once per week. Inside, our space felt warm and inviting just like it always had, and it was wonderful to be in person – but Portland was struggling and outside our building was hard to watch. It didn’t feel safe walking to our cars or the food carts, and we weren’t sure clients and team members would want to truly return in earnest.
As a firm and a collective group, we talked honestly and opening about a return to the office. For me, I strongly believe that we are in a collaborative industry, one that thrives on human connection and personal relationships. Many of my best friends are people that started out as colleagues. Work was rewarding not just because of the job but because of the people. Personal and professional were completely intertwined. I met my husband through Julie, the person who I saw at a career fair in college and she encouraged me to apply at the firm where she was already working; I travel the country seeing Kenny Chesney at stadium shows every summer with my great St. Louis friend Katie who I first met when I hired her as an intern back in the day; I had lunch last week with my friend Krista who also happened to be my first boss. I want those some experiences and relationships for my own team, especially junior members.
Everyone talks about the importance of culture. But how do you truly have a strong culture that results in the kind of relationships that can last the rest of your life, when you don’t get to be together? Virtual happy hours aren’t culture making – in fact, I’d argue they are a culture killer. So, when you strip away the small talk, the afternoon Starbucks’ run, the post-work workout or the weekend plan making while sitting at your desk on a Thursday afternoon, what are you left with? The work. The tasks at hand. That’s it. And tasks can get old, and boring and annoying.
Much is being said about the great resignation, but all I will add is that I believe work is only so fulfilling by yourself, in front of your computer, with to-the-point Zoom calls and forced virtual team check-ins, day in and day out – month in, month out. It’s not how I want to work and it’s certainly not how I lead best.
This week marked a new chapter for our firm. As our desire to return to the office came into full focus, along with the sharp realities of downtown Portland’s challenges, we made the collective decision to pack up and move to the suburbs. Our space is bright and light and warm. We have snacks and coffee and books, but mostly we have each other in-person, three days a week. It feels incredible.
It was bittersweet locking the door in the Bullier Building – that office holds a lot of memories. When I told our team to work from home for two weeks in March of 2020, I wouldn’t have imagined that we wouldn’t return fully until October of 2021 and when we would, it would be with new faces, in a new location and with a new appreciation of what it means to collaborate.
Here’s to unlocking new doors and opening them up wide to let in our people, culture and excellence!