Leadership   //   June 14, 2022

‘I believe in a present workforce’: Edelman U.S. CEO Lisa Osborne Ross on 60% return to in-person work

This story was first reported on, and published by WorkLife sibling Digiday.

For the last year, vaccination rates have gone up, while fear of the pandemic has seemingly gone down. With that, employers have been calling staff back to the office in an effort to foster company culture and spark creativity through in-person work.

Those in leadership positions say the decision to stay remote or go back in-person has been a tricky balance to strike. It’s important to note that the pandemic isn’t over, which has forced executives to take a stop-and-go approach to returning to offices amid new waves of Covid-19. Meanwhile, the last two years have proven that fully remote work is possible, and even profitable — meaning convincing employees of the necessity to be in-person has only gotten harder. 

However, public-relations giant Edelman is asking employees to be in the office at least 60% of the time. (The global company has 6,000 or more employees working across 60 office locations worldwide.) How that 60% is divided up is left up to employees, according to Lisa Osborne Ross, Edelman’s U.S. CEO.

Edelman settled into its hybrid work environment in mid-March of this year, although office doors in several cities were open on a voluntary basis alongside public health and safety measures well before March. It’s for the sake of company culture, says Ross. Digiday caught up with the CEO to talk about why in-person work matters, communicating the return to office to staff and the future of work.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You mentioned that leadership has to make decisions that won’t make everyone happy, including the decision to return to in-person work. How does that tie into company culture?

It’s managing the expectations. I often say to people, “I have to share something that is not going to feel good. But what’s really important is this is coming from a good place, it is well-intentioned. Worry when I don’t give you the feedback.” That is creating a kind culture, an honest culture and a direct culture. Because you’re going to provide the feedback. And if you do it when somebody walks out of the room, that’s not cool.

Transparency can play a big role in return to the office conversations. What does that look like for your team?

I will be very honest, I believe in a present workforce. The way we’ve talked about it is present with purpose. But I also understand the volume of people, some of them parents who have said, “I’m having dinner with my kids for the first time in five years and I’m not giving that up.” My reply was I’m not asking you to. I’m excited about people being back in the workplace. It’s not so much for you. I need you to teach others. I believe in a learning culture. You learn best when you are seated next to people, you’re walking around, you’re going out to lunch, you’re chatting in the ladies room. I’m anxious and excited to get us back to that space.

There’s been pushback around the return to work. People have proven they can do their jobs remotely. How are you, someone in a leadership position, relaying the need for in-person work to your team?

You tell people why you need them. You say to an adult: I’m trying to build a culture where we can best serve our clients with creative material ideas and campaigns that will lead to real social change that will solve a problem. And in creating that culture, I believe the best way to do that is for us to spend time together as a community. That’s why I’m asking you to come back to the office three days a week to do your work. You say to a child, “Do this.” You say to an adult, “This is what I need you to do, this is why, this is the benefit to you, this is the responsibility and this is the accountability, etc.” 

What does Edelman’s return to the office plan look like?

During Covid-19, we had so many false starts, when we thought we were heading back to return to the physical office. And so our return to the office policy is an expectation that you were in the office three days a week or 60% of time for a month. I don’t care what time you leave. I don’t care if you come in. The one thing that we have signaled on is 60% of the time in the office flexibility and present with purpose.

Has there been pushback with that within Edelman that you’re aware of?

Not yet. There may be, but not yet. The employee value proposition has changed dramatically over the last two years with Covid-19, the racial reckoning, a focus on climate. People are looking for purpose. It’s not just compensation. People want flexibility and they want recognition that mental health is a significant, integral part of who we are.