For leaders struggling to find the right balance of in-person and virtual work, Brian Macias, President of Embrace Pet Insurance, recommends the path he’s taken: experimenting, taking cues from the organization and tweaking as needed.
In its 16 years of existence, Embrace has long had flexible work policies, so when the pandemic shut everything down in 2020, going virtual overnight wasn’t as big of a change as it was for some other businesses. Later, when the company first brought people back to the office in May 2021, it was on a voluntary basis. “We said, ‘Hey, we’d love to see our salaried workers, our IT folks, our marketing folks, our leaders, at least two days a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” says Macias. “That was good for the last year and a half or so, but we needed to take it to the next level.”
Towards the end of 2022, Macias announced a new policy that made two days a week in the office mandatory for salaried workers within a 35-mile radius of the Cleveland, Ohio headquarters. While he still believes firmly in a hybrid culture, “nothing replaces face-to-face interaction. It’s really necessary for mentoring team members, for building relationships, for innovation.”
Why Tuesdays and Thursdays? “That really happened organically,” he says. “’Middle of the week’ is the guidance we gave early on because we just figured Mondays are days for really catching up, having been off over the weekend, and a lot of task-oriented, individually productive kinds of things happen on Mondays. Then we figured Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays were great times for meetings, collaborations, meeting with clients, etc. And then Fridays tend to be days again where people are now winding down and so they’re tying up any loose ends from the week.
“And then we booked some team days — these weren’t mandatory, but just guidance so that, if I’m on the claims team or the sales team or the IT team or the marketing team, I know which days my team is going to be in the office so I can get some synchronous time with them. And then, organically, it just kind of whittled down to Tuesdays and Thursdays as team members just kind of figured out their own flow and when they work best.”
Three months later, Macias reports that the new structure is working out well. “[It’s] delivering what we hoped it would, from the ability to have quick informal meetings, engage in serendipitous interactions, get creative, problem solve, white board, collaborate and cultivate relationships,” he says. “We have seen a huge morale boost amongst our employees, and it has been amazing to witness the team-building efforts unfold. Creativity is truly at an all-time high, and we attribute that to our in-person interactions.”
Macias personally uses both virtual tools and in-person meets to shore up the Embrace culture. “Coffee with Brian,” for example, allows different groups of employees to meet virtually with the president on informal topics, such as favorite podcasts. “The other piece would be just taking people out to lunch or just hitting them up over teams,” he says. “I think to a large extent it probably appears on the outside to be informal and spontaneous, and sometimes it is. But very often it’s scheduled for me and intentional, because it’s important to me that I do it.”
Culture is one of the things that enabled Embrace to triple its business over the last three years, with almost no turnover of its knowledge workers, actually netting more people during the Great Resignation, Macias says. “To us, culture is not about kegs in the office, ping pong tables, or even bringing dogs to work, though we encourage it. It’s about personal connections, supporting employees and offering opportunities for growth and to make an impact.”
Since some team members are fully virtual and others are hybrid, Macias is still working on how to enhance the office in a way that will bring the two together more efficiently and productively. For example, “the staff in the office still needs to have the space and ability to hold virtual meetings,” he says. “So we need to continue to think through how to best utilize the space and the resources the office has and cater to a hybrid environment.” The company also offers a variety of workspaces in their office that meet the needs of the way people work including conference rooms, huddle rooms for one-on-one meetings and open, collaborative spaces.
“I think this is an ongoing, iterative experiment, and it needs to be,” he says. “However, I am seeing so many benefits from the hybrid work model. In a lot of ways, it creates more work/life balance. For instance, for some employees, it creates more balance by establishing rigor around when work starts and when work ends. But, obviously, on those two days our staff are in the office, they can’t do things they’d have the ability to do working from home, like throw in that extra load of laundry, take their dog for a quick walk, or run an errand.
“The key,” he adds, “is to experiment and find things that work for your people.”