BOSTON (SHNS) – Why is returning to in-person work important — is it because an employee’s role requires it or because that was the norm before the pandemic?

That’s the question many businesses are looking to answer right now as they manage workforces during a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. COVID case rates are trending upwards again as the winter holidays approach and the new Omicron variant has been detected in Massachusetts.

There are both complex and simple issues with deciding whether to shift to a hybrid work format, business executives said at a virtual forum on Tuesday hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, including retaining company culture and collaboration.

Sarah Evans, chief human resources officer at Ocean Spray, said she “can’t stress enough” the objective of evaluating a role for remote work and applying that philosophy to each individual in that role. Ocean Spray, she said, built a framework to help company leaders identify roles that were capable of being done remotely full-time or not.

Using that framework and in an effort to lead on returning to the office, Ocean Spray determined that employees would not work in person on Mondays or Fridays and would head into the office Tuesday through Thursday. If employees could not meet that requirement, Evans said, the company “would have to part ways when that time comes.”

“It made it a lot less about the person and a lot more objective with the role and the requirements of the role and enabled us to be able to have some tough conversations and also to making sure we were payrolling them in the right state, which was a big issue for people who just upped and moved,” she said.

Robert Kennedy, a senior vice president at Fidelity Investments, said a hybrid work format of bringing everyone into the office twice a week may not work for all employees.

“I like Sarah’s suggestion about having it be role-based,” Kennedy said. “But I think you almost have to start with the question of why is in-person important? Is it because the role requires it? Or, is it because that’s what we used to do in 2019 and we all miss 2019?”

At Accenture, Senior Managing Director Pallavi Verma said executives found several themes early on around flexibility, adaptability, understanding what the requirements are for a specific job, and maintaining consistent expectations.

“I think the one thing that we’ve been very thoughtful about, or continuing to be thoughtful about, is looking at every group differently,” she said. “Like it’s not a one-size-fits-all for every employee that we have, it has to be by function.”

If companies do decide to shift to a hybrid format or keep employees fully remote, how can leaders keep people engaged and foster, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and culture? Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Financial Services Vice President James Linehan says the mindset executives display is incredibly important.

There’s been an evolution of thinking, he said, for leaders who worked out of the office Monday through Friday while their subordinates chose to work from home for a portion of the workweek. Linehan said he has been “very receptive” to people working from home but never thought it would work for him.

“I think there are some who are learning through this process and are willing to embrace it and I think that comes out when you’re working with your teams. And frankly, there are some leaders who still aren’t quite ready to embrace it, and I think that comes out as well, too,” he said. “If you’re not quite there yet, you are inclined to probably give those people the feeling that okay, if I’m not in the building, maybe I’m not as important as those who are. Whether it’s subliminal or not, I think that’s critical.”

As far as cultivating relationships between employees, Proverb Managing Partner Daren Bascome said it helps to create unstructured opportunities for people to connect.

“There’s 15 minutes that we sort of build into every day, people can kind of drop-in and so sometimes the conversations are about work, sometimes they’re not, or what have you, but we found that that’s actually been really helpful in terms of just keeping people connected,” he said.

At one point, Bascome said, Proverb was giving people stipends to spend on something that brought them joy with the condition that leaders wanted to hear what people did with the money.

“It was great to be able to kind of get to know your colleagues a little better or to sort of build in a certain level of friendly rivalry,” he said.