How one company used lockdowns to envision a new way of working

Purell maker GOJO took the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink the workplace.

As the maker of one of the world's best-selling hand sanitizers, you would expect GOJO Industries to take special care when bringing people back safely to the workplace. The firm's methodical approach could serve as a guidebook for any company facing the same challenges. 

The Akron, OH maker of Purell prides itself on collaboration, so the forced isolation of COVID lockdowns was a blow.

"Prior to the pandemic, we were almost entirely an in-person culture," said Emily Esterly, vice president of work ecosystem and employee experience. "We were super collaborative with no closed offices." 

The company wanted to maintain that culture while respecting new needs for social distancing and the wishes of employees who had taken a shine to remote work.

But it didn't want to make its decisions appear arbitrary or issue blanket policies, particularly since many of its lab and manufacturing employees couldn't do their jobs from home. So long before restrictions were lifted, executives thought hard about what the future workplace would look like. 

GOJO spent 18 months surveying employees, conducting focus groups, and creating prototypes of its office of the future. Hundreds of people participated in the exercise, which was intended to define roles that would match expectations for an office presence in the future.

A transparent process


Employee buy-in was critical, which meant that language mattered. For example, managers eschewed the term "return to office" in favor of "work to be done."

There would be no defined moment of return, and the employees' roles would determine the expectations.

Ultimately, organizers settled on four role types.

"Mostly virtual" jobs require less than 10% office time and are optimized for traveling workers such as sales and service people. "Blended weekly" and "blended monthly" roles involve office work two to three times a week or three to four times a month. "Mostly on-site" is for people who need to be physically present most of the time.

It turned out that the workforce fell fairly evenly into each role.

The process was made as transparent as possible, mindful of the need for people to understand why they were slotted into a job type.  "We decided to prototype and test instead of just changing things," Esterly said. "Taking preference out of the equation and making [decisions] based on the work to be done created a more equitable system. People felt they were part of the process."

There was some flexibility within roles.

 "For each role, there's a percentage of time we'd expect you to be on-site that's an average for the year," Esterly said. "A person may be on-site all the time for a while and then offsite for a time."

Two categories of events were identified that require physical presence: site-specific tasks like lab work and "milestone moments," which are all-hands meetings, onboarding, training, and the chartering of new teams.

From offices to neighborhoods


The office layout has been rejiggered to reflect the transformed workplace's role as a collaboration space more than a collection of offices.

The Akron headquarters is being reconstructed around "neighborhoods," or open spaces for in-person gatherings. In addition, the concept of "drop-in desks" was created to describe personal spaces outfitted with function-specific accoutrements that people in virtual and blended roles can take when they come to the office. 

"We were an open office, to begin with, so this wasn't wildly different from what we had before," Esterly said. "It was more about removing some desk density and shifting to drop-ins."

GOJO was fortunate to have standardized on a single collaboration platform shortly before the pandemic. A consistent set of tools for file-sharing and conference calls were "wrapped around our way of working to enable employees to do their best work regardless of location," said CIO Brian Carr. So when COVID arrived, "we were able to pull it off the shelf."

Special attention has been paid to meeting technology.

"We implemented an integrated business collaboration platform that has been part of the glue that's helped us all work," Carr said. "We have provided good conference phones that are right for the size of the room so that those who are working virtually can hear and feel part of it." In addition, virtual whiteboard technology has been so well-received that it is now used even when all hands are present.

GOJO created a video to describe its new work ecosystem and outlined the process on its blog.

Organizations wrestling with how to return to the workplace in a way that is both inclusive and logical may be able to learn a few things from its example.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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