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What Top Marketing Leaders Are Thinking About the Return to Offices

Nearly half of CMOs surveyed expect a hybrid workplace.

Only 13% of CMOs surveyed anticipate a fully in-office workforce, post-pandemic. [Stocksy/Bonninstudio]

The biggest business discussions right now are taking place around how (and when) we should head back to the office. But as Forbes wrote recently, employees aren’t only interested in which workplace model their companies will adopt. They also want to know why.

To get a better idea of what top business leaders consider when making these types of decisions, we asked members of The CMO Club to share some of their own strategies going forward. The CMO Club, which includes more than 650 of the world‘s most innovative marketing executives, represents both B2B and B2C brands. 

Prior to the pandemic, 55% of those CMOs told us that employees worked almost completely in the office (and only 5% worked from a combination of home and office). Now, however, only 13% of those CMOs anticipate a fully in-office workforce, post-pandemic, and 48% expect their team to work from both home and office.

Here are some of the key takeaways from those conversations.

Better energy in person

JD Dillon, CMO, Tigo Energy

Tigo Energy, Dillon said, is a relatively young company in the solar energy sector. And the size of his company — which has fewer than 200 employees — is a big factor. “We’re a small company — if you work at Tigo, you’re working in the office,” he said. “There are going to be tons of ‘what-ifs,’ and we’re going to work through that. There are risks associated with downsides. But we believe, from the CEO on down, that the upsides of working next to each other are greater than the downsides. Collaboration leads to more effective business outcomes, and that’s best done face-to-face.”

Pre-pandemic expectations factor in

Guillermo Plasencia, CMO, JoinMyTrip.com

“It might be a little bit different for us, because we’re in Europe,” Plasencia said, “(but) it was a huge culture shock when I first got here — everybody was used to working from a home office. They feel like it’s their right to be able to work at home, if they choose to.”

Work from anywhere

Cindy Donohoe, EVP & CMO, Highmark Health

Donohoe and her team first confronted attitudes related to the transition. “We were calling it ‘return to office,’ or ‘return to work,’ but that makes it sound like we haven’t been working all this time.” The solution, she said, was to rename it “work from anywhere.”

It was also important to consider new protocols under the “brand culture” umbrella: “How our people work together to bring the brand to life,” she said. “If they’re going to deliver on our customer experience, they have to have an amazing employee experience that’s based on the same principles. We’ve been applying all of that to our ‘work from anywhere’ approach.”

The bottom line? Helping employees contribute at the highest level. “We’re empowering team members to work when and where they’re personally most effective,” she said. “We’ll always make sure we meet customer needs, and we’ll always make sure we meet business needs. Assuming both of those are met, we then focus on employee needs, so that they can do their best work.”

We’re empowering team members to work when and where they’re personally most effective.

Cindy Donohoe, EVP & CMO, highmark health

“At an executive level, if there are people onsite, there’s an expectation that you’re accessible to those people—that you’re walking the floor, that you’re visible,” she said. But, she cautioned, advancement opportunities should continue at every level, regardless of work location.

“If we start saying our leaders always have to show up, or we start seeing promotions only go to those people who show up in person at the office, then that’s something people who choose flex need to be aware of. They need to think about how they’re going to counteract that, and get the visibility to advance their careers.”

Guillermo Plasencia, CMO, JoinMyTrip.com

Plasencia’s team first considered going fully remote because, he said, “Everyone kept asking if they could do it.” When they did give everyone the option to work remotely, however,  something interesting happened.“ The next week we started seeing people show up at the office,” he said.

“So, our strategy now is, ‘If you want to work from home, work from home. If you want to come into the office, come into the office.’”

Rethinking retention and recruitment

In 2020, we learned that many productive employees strongly preferred virtual work. Are you planning to allow them that flexibility? If not, a competing employer might. A virtual workplace also enables you to bring on talent from around the world — not just across the street.

Heather Malenshek, SVP and CMO for Land O’Lakes, Inc.

“We’re working more hybrid than anything,” Malenshek said. “I think I’d lose half my team, if not more, if I said, ‘You have to be in the office five days a week.’”

Guillermo Plasencia, CMO, JoinMyTrip.com

“It was really interesting how we (hired) because there was no real reason that they should be local or even in the same country,” Plasencia said. “We started hiring people in Beirut, and Brazil, everywhere, because it made no difference to me whether the person was in Germany or in Europe. It opened up a pool of talent that maybe before we were prejudiced against hiring, because we thought, ‘Yeah, how is that going to work?’”

I think I’d lose half my team, if not more, if I said, ‘You have to be in the office five days a week.’

Heather Malenshek, SVP and CMO for Land o’Lakes, Inc.

Cindy Donohoe, EVP & CMO, Highmark Health

When Donohoe’s team decided to embrace work from anywhere, they had to define exactly what “anywhere” meant. “For us, it’s anywhere in the United States as long as you’re not in one of those jobs that has to be on site or based in a specific market area,” she said. Speaking of her own team, she added, “I’m in Pittsburgh, and I brought on a VP in the Texas area.”

JD Dillon, CMO, Tigo Energy

“Requiring a commute is already impacting hiring,” said Dillon. “Our recruiter has to weed out highly qualified candidates, and that’s a shame. It makes her job a lot harder, but it is worth it.”

Heather Malenshek, SVP and CMO for Land O’Lakes, Inc.

“It’s opened up the pool of talent for us, as well — I just hired someone who lives in Arizona, and somebody who lives in Alabama,” Malenshek said.

“But it also works the other way around. I’ve had people who’ve left because they’re able to go and work for some pretty big brands on the West Coast, without having to move and (deal with) the expense of (living in) California. It’s a really interesting time right now.”

Making the right decision

Now that we’ve been able to envision what different workplaces might look like, you can think about how each model might impact delivery of your own unique business objectives. The decision is one that you’ll want to continuously evaluate and adjust. Here’s how:

Assign decisions like these to the right people. Key figures from HR and IT, and health and safety officers will also bring valuable insight to the table, and you’ll want to make decisions that are informed by the right perspectives.

Fine-tune your tools. Many organizations had to utilize new tools and platforms in 2020. Are those tools still effective with on-site or hybrid teams? Explore other new tools that will help your team adapt to whichever workplace model you go with.

Evaluate. What works today might not be so great tomorrow. Be agile, open-minded, and frequently reassess your plans. “I think the challenge is figuring out how long we stay with whatever it is that we have,” said Michael McCunney, vice president of marketing at Revenue Analytics. “That’s the decision that we have right now, and understanding when it’s the right time to reevaluate.”


Jenn is an associate product marketing manager on the Digital 360 & Experience Cloud marketing team focusing on thought leadership content strategy for the CMO+ persona. She has a background in business development, field marketing and event strategy. In her free time she enjoys cooking, traveling, exercising and volunteering with local animal shelters.

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