Case Study: Connections not cubicles: “We didn’t want to mandate staff returns”

How one digital marketing agency is rethinking the workplace of the future:

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Mar 5, 2024

The headlines are blaring. Post-pandemic office policies, often worded in severe ultimatums, have heralded the “Back to Office” wave.

Some of the biggest and most influential names in corporate America (read: Zoom, JPMorgan Chase, Google, Apple, etc.) now insist on a return to the traditional office setup.

I am the chief people officer of a company that is (to put it plainly), standing firmly against the currents of the return-to-office momentum.

Instead, Tinuiti, one of the largest independent performance marketing firms in the US, is embarking on a journey known as “Project Connection,” which prioritizes connection, collaboration, and caring over cubicles and conference rooms.

Listen and Learn

Our groundbreaking approach to rethink the future of work was borne from two key lessons learned: not by telling our people what to do – but by listening to them instead.

One: Following the pandemic, when our ten offices across the country officially reopened in 2021, we found that a staggering 99% of our 1,200+ workforce chose to continue working remotely, even though offices were accessible to almost all of them.

Two: But there were downsides to this choice. Working from Home, as liberating as it was, came coupled with a sense of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection. “Remote Work Giveth, and Remote Work Taketh Away.”

To tackle this paradox, we blazed a new trail – closing eight of our ten offices and reinvesting the savings into operationalizing a new way forward; one designed to combat the loneliness that loomed over a remote workforce.

From there, Project Connection took shape.

More than just coworkers

The critical importance of “work friends” has been widely supported by plenty of new research out there — from MIT Sloan, Harvard Business Review,  and many others.

The scientifically-backed benefits of these relationships (chief amongst which was the camaraderie people felt when working together), led us to a novel solution: facilitate the deep, meaningful connections typically created in-office – without offices. 

To do this, Project Connection has three core pillars: Connection, Collaboration, and Caring.

These form the foundation of Tinuiti’s approach to fostering those crucial work friendships and they are brought to life through a variety of initiatives.

With a little location analysis we identified several cities with the largest clusters of employees.

This information led us to form official ‘Communitis‘ in 26 cities across the country, as well as four Remote Communitis to provide a Project Connection experience for employees who may live a little farther from one another.

Not in the office? No problem. Staff can work remote

In this way, Project Connection prioritizes both in-person and virtual friendships – ensuring every single employee has the opportunity to build and create relationships in a way that best suits their location, lifestyle, and preference.

In 2023, Project Connection brought together hundreds of people, both in-person and virtually, with over 80% of Tinuiti’s employees engaging with the program across all three pillars:

  • Connection: Fostering work friends and fun, supported good old-fashioned get togethers – from murder mystery-themed nights to rooftop happy hours, a pizza walking tour, and more.
  • Collaboration: Bringing people together for meaningful work, which led to impactful mentorships, in-person team bonding, and ongoing learning and development.
  • Caring: Centered on giving back to our shared communities, which has benefited 45 different charitable organizations nationwide with more than 300 employee volunteer hours accumulated across multiple communities.

Better than these numbers though, the testimonials have been astounding:

“I can’t emphasize how FUN it was to see everyone get together. We’ve all been living in our Slack/Zoom worlds for too long and people were hyped to just meet in person!”

Chicago Communiti Member

“I only knew one person from my Communiti prior to joining…Project Connection has been an amazing addition to my days.”

Illinois-based Remote Communiti Member

“I love being around people, and the WFH life has made that difficult. Being able to plan an outing with my fellow PDXers filled my extrovert cup and I can’t wait to do more.”

Portland Communiti Member 

Connections over cubicles 

Ultimately, we view Project Connection not as a program but as a paradigm shift in the workplace of the future, which we are building as we go even though there is no blueprint.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in 2020, its ripple effects have continued to alter just about every facet of society, including making an indelible mark on both the way we conduct business and, notably, what employees have come to expect from their employers.

This means not only reinterpreting how the workplace functions within society, but how it functions within the lives of the employees that give the workplace meaning.

My advice to companies navigating their way forward? 

First: And this may seem obvious, ask for employee feedback.

Honest feedback from your employees will take you 10x further than hours of execs-only conversations.

Do not fall into the echo chamber. 

Second: If there is no playbook, write one. We collected employee feedback and we did plenty of research (and both informed a very clearly defined mission), but still, there was no model for us to follow. We couldn’t wait around for one or we would risk being too late to tackle an issue our employees were facing. So, in short, we had to build it! We kept our goal front and center though, and focused on heading in the right direction – even though we didn’t have a map.

Third: Continue to innovate. Today’s solutions might not be tomorrow’s solutions, or even next week’s. There is no perfect cure-all and the only constant is change. So stay nimble, keep eyes (and minds), open to continuously evolve in the best interests of your employees.

It’s time to rethink the post-office world and prioritize connections over cubicles.

The future of work is about more than just office spaces, it’s about helping foster fulfilling relationships and meaningful connections.

After all, doubling down on the past will never push you forward.