Why Our Office Remained Open Through the Pandemic – And Why Yours Should Reopen, Too After Covid-19, remote work is here to stay. But in some cases, in-person work still serves you better.

By Tom Holgate

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When Covid-19 first hit, our company went entirely remote. We soon saw 10% drops in productivity.

Two months after the initial nationwide lockdowns, while most other companies kept working from home, we returned to the office. We've been here since. During that time, we've experienced 300% growth. Our workforce has more than doubled to over 300 team members. And we learned there's no substitute for in-person collaboration.

Our strategy was simple: embrace flexibility, use common sense and, above all, trust our people to act responsibly. While conditions will obviously differ from business to business, we learned a powerful lesson on how to navigate disruption — even one as great as a pandemic.

One immediate concern was customer privacy. As a financial firm, we zealously guard client information. Before the pandemic, we would chaperone electricians and plumbers through our office to make sure no outsiders could review clients' private information. Now, with remote work, we had to trust our team members to protect customer data at home. In reality, we had little idea of who else might be able to see it. Again, trusting our team members was key.

Then there was the issue of sales. Making dozens of client calls a day takes initiative and discipline, two traits that are much harder to manage when workers are alone. By week two or three of remote work, the distractions of home crept in. It became much easier to procrastinate around a kitchen or TV or lists of chores. Outbound productivity fell by 10% or even more in certain cases.

Salespeople used to the electricity of the office found remote work lacking in collaboration and excitement. There was no applause from colleagues or the triumphant ringing of the bell after a sale. Our spirited team competitions lost their luster in the disembodied world of Zoom.

We were also getting complaints from team members. Remote life was putting a definite cramp on their earning power. Some didn't have the privacy or the internet quality to be as productive at home. Others admitted to lacking the self-discipline. Their commission-based pay dropped as much as 20% as a result. We had to make a change that would protect our team members' ability to earn the income they were accustomed to.

Related: Should You Bring Employees Back to the Office?

Trust your people to be adults

Our company has some architectural advantages. We work in a spacious building with cubicles six feet apart. We adhered to all the science, installing air ionizers and sanitizing stations as well as requiring masks in common areas. In-person meetings were halted and the conference room was verboten.

Still, we didn't try to over-engineer our return, or formulate rules to meet every scenario. Instead, we trusted our people to make adult decisions, balancing their personal needs with their personal safety.

We made sure people were comfortable. Workers with symptoms were sent home. If colleagues were reluctant to go out in public, or lived with someone who was immunocompromised, they could still work remotely. We erred on the side of assurance, trusting them to self-manage their own situations.

Many of our employees are in their 20s and 30s, and still living active lives outside the office. Not surprisingly, a virus outbreak arrived within months of our return to in-person work. More than 20 salespeople got Covid-19. This resulted in 90 "exposed" colleagues, all of which were sent home with laptops, not to return until CDC isolation guidelines were met.

Related: The Importance of Returning to the Office After Remote Working

There was another outbreak of approximately 15 cases and several smaller ones with a handful of cases. I had to quarantine once myself, never testing positive for Covid-19 but still becoming stir crazy before my week of isolation was over. It offered firsthand experience in the difficulty of working and living a solitary life in lockdown. Studies show that long term isolation breeds depression, anxiety, alcoholism and substance abuse over time. We knew we couldn't let this happen to our team.

As long as team members hit their metrics, they had the flexibility to do what worked for them. Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but of course not everything was perfect.

Our experience won't work for everyone. If you're a Silicon Valley engineer plowing through a four-month project, remote work may be more productive. The same goes for workers who now forgo long commutes in congested cities like New York or LA. The idea is to avoid one-size-fits-all edicts.

Did we do everything right? Probably not. Yet we had no real repercussions. And we didn't get bogged down with an authoritarian rule book that could have broken the employer-team member bond.

It's clear that interaction is healthy. Treat people as adults and give them the freedom to adjust as needed, and they'll make smart decisions that work for both business and their personal lives. It allowed our company to pull together under the worst of conditions and allowed us to thrive during unprecedented times.

Tom Holgate

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

CEO of iLending

Tom Holgate is CEO of iLending, which helps consumers refinance their car loans to lower their monthly payments.

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