Choosing a culture of flexibility

Sep 26, 2021

It’s natural to want to go back to normal – but remember that employees are your firm’s most important asset, and their needs are critical to your continued success.

The pandemic has irrevocably changed how we as an industry operate, and firms are now faced with a decision as to when they’ll implement that fabled “return to normal.” But after so many months successfully remote, the question of how and why a firm goes back to the office becomes just as pressing as when. How do we establish a plan that makes everyone happy? What does normal look like now? And why did leadership reach a particular decision? At BL Companies, these questions have been at the forefront of our minds throughout the pandemic. After many months of deliberation, employee surveys, and constant communication we came to the clear and obvious answer, that what our employees value over everything else was the freedom to choose.

BL’s decision to go remote was reached swiftly after several weeks of increasing safety measures. Even though the transition to remote work went smoothly, it was clear that constant and early communication pathways needed to be established both for the continued success of our business and for the well-being of our employees. We instituted a weekly firm-wide meeting with the CEO, where updates could be provided on the state of our business, the health and economic crises at large, and what the future held for our firm. But more than that, it was an opportunity for leadership to be a steady presence in the lives of our employees when so much was in flux. After a few weeks of remote work, we also held a firm-wide development workshop focused on building a framework to deal with an organizational crisis such as the pandemic. The workshop was a great way to help our employees address their feelings about the abrupt change to our business, while allowing them an open forum to share their varying concerns, questions, and priorities with the leadership team. This employee feedback was invaluable, because it allowed us to recognize early on that our employees did not have uniform needs.

After a few months of remote work, we launched the first of several firm-wide surveys to gauge interest in returning to the office. This survey was an opportunity for employees to share directly how they felt about returning to in-office work on a voluntary basis, without fear of being held to a permanent decision or judged. Ultimately, responses were mixed between those who wished to remain fully remote, those who wished to be fully in-office, and those who wished to be hybrid. Subsequent surveys and discussions found similar results – there was a split between all three “return” options.

While there was no single decision that would make everyone happy, it was clear that allowing remote and hybrid options alongside fully in-office workers would mean a lot of changes to how our firm operates. But ultimately, BL had already been changed. We’d moved our employee leadership training (which all new employees regardless of level go through) from a three-day marathon retreat to a virtual, multi-week workshop. We held our first ever fully virtual ESOP Month, continuing the tradition of celebrating our employee-owners with a month of games, treats, and prizes. We found new ways to mentor, communicate, and succeed. And despite the uncertainty and challenges of 2020, it turned out to be BL’s best year on record. We grew our employee-base to more than 350 employees, exceeded our revenue goals, and added three new offices. BL had been successful fully remote, so why, as we contemplated the future, wouldn’t a mix of options also work?

After a year of fully remote work and consistently inconsistent employee needs, BL’s senior leadership team came to a decision – starting in September, employees were allowed to choose whichever work option met their needs best, with the ability to change their selection as their lives and circumstances change. This decision was very well-received by employees, with many relieved they weren’t being forced into an option that didn’t work for them. Now, those who value quiet, uninterrupted focus time don’t need to worry about readjusting to an open office. Those who miss the energy of in-person collaboration aren’t stuck feeling isolated. And those who need a little bit of both can set whatever hybrid schedule works best for them. A lot of people had been holding their breath, waiting to see what BL would decide. Now, they could finally exhale.

In the wake of a major disruption, it’s natural to want to go back to normal. Many firms have done just that. But it’s important to remember that employees are your firm’s most important asset, and their needs are critical to your continued success. BL is fortunate that we have the resources and infrastructure to offer a way to make everyone happy, but ultimately, what your firm decides is less important than how you go about making that decision. Employees need to feel safe, heard, and connected. Take this opportunity to open up a new communication pathway and listen to how your team is feeling. Regardless of your firm’s reopening decision, this will be another new transition and another readjustment. Another change. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that change will always come – what’s important is how you meet it.

Julia DeFrances is a marketing coordinator at BL Companies, Inc. She can be reached at

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