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Remote work has become the new normal for many companies. While many thought it seemed like a simple shift to make, not every company was originally on board with the switch to remote work. 

Collage Group, a consumer research and advisory company, is a company that never planned to go remote. The leaders at Collage Group were under the impression that in order to retain talent and build a strong culture, employees needed in-office perks and group lunches every day. But then something shifted within their mindset.

By chance, before the start of the pandemic in 2020, Collage decided to do a trial of hybrid work—they let their employees work from home every Thursday. Although this was an internal debate for a while, it actually worked in their favor because three months later, they had no choice but to go fully remote.

What started as a trial run turned into a forced, fully remote work environment for the Collage Group. However, it turned out to be positive for their workforce, company culture, and hiring trends. David Wellisch, CEO of Collage Group, joined Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, to discuss the transition from hesitancy toward remote work to embracing the change over the last few years.

David Wellisch describes the hybrid work model as a balancing act. Trying to retain talent, build a strong company culture, see results, and promote a flexible work environment is all a balancing act that CEOs of hybrid and remote companies need to navigate. 

Many employees, especially of younger generations, are ecstatic about remote work. People love the opportunity to have boundaries, privacy, and work on their own schedule. The only downside is that companies need to work harder to foster connections amongst employees.

Enter the balancing act.

“Gen-Zers and Millennials, they discovered flexibility. And so the question is, how do you balance that with culture, community, and sense of belonging? And how do you not get into a transactional world?”

Employees are embracing remote work, but still, the missing link for a long time was fostering an authentic community and building relationships with coworkers. As humans, we aren’t meant to only be transactional — especially with our colleagues. Companies need to put an emphasis on connection and community, which David and his team continue to work toward. 

“How do you respect the found priority for flexibility? And yet, at the same time, how do you continue to deepen the sense of belonging, community, that as humans, we all strive to have?”

Keeping culture authentic

As a company that once believed you have to be in the office to have a strong culture and retain top talent, they have now found new ways to build company culture. For both work and cultural purposes, the Collage Group has found new ways to keep its employees connected. 

To ensure their employees are still spending time with one another, they have organized monthly coffee chats and bi-weekly happy hours. On the weeks where they don’t have happy hours, they’ve upped the cadence of their company-wide meetings from monthly to bi-weekly. With the mix of fun and serious meetings, their employees are connecting at least once a week to build both interpersonal and professional relationships.

“Authenticity is at the center of our culture… being authentic, being caring, while ambitious and driven, is really at the center of it, especially in this remote context.”

In addition to their monthly coffee chats and bi-weekly happy hours, Collage has also launched a monthly Collage Academy curriculum. This helps employees focus on the soft skills that are often overlooked, but often drive the most results. 

By focusing on what matters most to the Collage team and offering flexible options for connection amongst employees, Collage is able to foster an authentic culture that aligns with their core values.

The great Zoom camera debate

One value that is incredibly important to David and his team is the art of connection, especially when it comes to connecting via Zoom. A great debate amongst leaders and remote employees today is which meetings are camera-on and which are camera-off? And, on top of that, how do you decide which meetings call for which protocol? 

For David, he thrives on the connection created by being face-to-face with coworkers, even virtually.

So listen; I’m from Latin America. I love people, and I derive energy from people, and I care about our people,” said Wellisch. “And so, when we’re on Zoom, I want to see them. I want to interact. I want to generate energy, get energy.

Although it’s important for David to see who he’s interacting with via Zoom, there is no real mandate for the employees at Collage. 

“It’s interesting; when we were discussing policy, we said, ‘In our company, community has meant a lot, and interactions have meant a lot. And we’re not just meant to be producers. And we’re not just meant to transact. We’re meant to connect.’” 

They put an emphasis on building connections, not just having transactions. At the end of the day, employees can choose to have their camera on or off, whichever makes them most comfortable.

The future of work for Collage Group

Nobody expected the pandemic or remote work to last as long as they have. When companies explored going back to the office with a hybrid approach, the idea of a two-tiered system was discussed—that those who were in the office had an advantage of having access to leadership, when those who remained at home were at a disadvantage. Thanks to the technology that can be leveraged, the two-tier system may not be a reality for most companies — but it’s all about trial and error. 

Wellisch is doing a great job building an authentic, intentional community at Collage Group. While right now they are fully remote, Wellisch believes that they will move forward to being a hybrid company, giving employees the option to work in an office or work from anywhere. 

Truthfully, remote work isn’t going anywhere, and it has turned out to be a benefit for the Collage team. Over the last year alone, Collage increased its headcount by 30% and was able to hire outside of their office location. 

“Every time we hired, not only did we expect people to be in office, but it was always very much DC Metro and Bethesda,” said Wellisch. “We now have people all over the country.”

Advice for companies embracing hybrid work

There is no perfect approach to embracing remote work or hybrid work. If you’re a company like Collage Group that is going to be embracing hybrid work in the future, David Wellisch has some excellent advice for you.

Trust, measure, listen, and be open-minded because things are changing so much. We don’t know the truth; truth is sort of moving around; there are many flavors. And so, be open-minded, learn a lot, talk to people, and lead.

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