Civitas Reunited: When and How to Return to the Workplace


words on a white board

Civitas prides itself in being a little quirky and different, but this summer we are facing questions not unlike most companies: as we emerge from the global pandemic, when and how should our studio come back to work together in the office? To us, the answers must come organically, and thoughtfully.

Engaging teammates the way we engage clients and communities

We’re in the process of doing for ourselves what we always do (and enjoy doing) for our clients. Opening dialogues. Discussing ideas. Asking questions before acting. Listening. Serving our clients comes naturally; looking inward can be a little more uncomfortable. But as a group of eighteen “Civitots”, plus Gonzo, we know we won’t succeed unless we work through this together. Our leadership team includes owner and president, Mark Johnson, my fellow principals Craig VickersScott Jordan, and Chris Parezo, and our business manager, Sandy Hendon. As Civitas’ director of marketing and a busy working mom juggling my family’s work, school and countless lacrosse games, my own leadership role (and personal goal) is to ensure we’re balancing the needs to be decisive as well as human. This is not the time for top-down or forced mandates. We care too much for each other to be so set in our ways. And don’t we always say, design is an iterative process.

Coming together for the first time since March 2020, our studio met in person in early June 2021. No announcements were made, nor decisions reached. Rather this first face-to-face, full-team meeting was a reaffirmation of our culture and our mission to engage people with nature in cities—a confirmation of why we’re all here. Mark asked the team to write down words about how we’re feeling as we come out of the pandemic, and the responses were both refreshing and eye-opening. There’s no doubt that we’ve all been through a trauma, but it’s also clear this experience bonds us together like a tribe—stronger than ever—and generates a post-pandemic spirit of optimism, which just so happened to be the word written most in that exercise.

Celebrating opportunities rather than focusing on challenges

One of the lessons we’re learning through dialogue is that we, as leaders, need to communicate more frequently and more clearly. It’s human nature to want transparency, awareness, and advance notice. We all want to be invited to participate, and to be asked for feedback. Prior to March 2020, when we were all working in the same space on a daily basis, we took for granted how easy this was. Working as a virtual team has required new processes, which I’ll admit still aren’t formed as habits yet. But there’s no doubt that transparency and inclusion help to build trust in each other, and in the process. So we’re trying new things and reminding each other that it’s okay to be a little unsure, as long as we continue to be purposeful and proactive.

Fortunately, being bold and hardworking is in Civitas’ DNA, and we enjoy being together. Yet, the pandemic has also proved that we’re committed to each other and can be productive as a distributed team. It’s helped us recognize that we can afford to take an organic approach, empowering and trusting individual teammates to come back when each is ready. For some this flexibility helps to ease family transitions, especially during the summer when many schools and camps are still operating on a limited basis. It also gives us time to test new approaches, try new practices, and simply get used to being out in the world again.

Investing in people to create a sense of place

We’re learning that we need to make some physical changes to our workplace, too, and our slow-and-steady return to the office will give us the time to do that thoughtfully. Health and wellness are extremely important to us and motivate the work we do for our clients and their communities. So we need to leverage the space we have within our office to let our own team members spread out and breathe. Topics under consideration: updating our space and furnishings, along with our ever-evolving IT needs, and working out the specific design details in follow-up meetings. Stay tuned, as we’ll look forward to sharing more.

Key to our success is the recognition that this is an evolution but not an endless process. We are seeking team members’ feedback to help us recalibrate, and then we must leverage our experience and our roles as leaders to make decisions. We can and will continue to make adjustments as they become necessary over time, but making informed decisions and closing the loop ultimately helps the whole team get to work and stay productive.

Overall, we’re making changes that show we value people, because we genuinely do. Outwardly, we are driven by the notion that people are what turn a city into a civitas, and that people deserve spaces that bring them together and create meaningful, lasting connections. Looking inward, we now recognize more than ever before that people are what define Civitas as well, and it feels good to be together again.

How is your own organization embracing the opportunity to come back together in person? Contact us. We’d love to hear ideas and learn from each other.