As pandemic restrictions eased and returning to physical office environments became feasible again, leaders and organizations across industries spent countless hours analyzing, developing, and communicating the perfect hybrid model. The length of time spent deliberating the decision belied the simplicity of the question at hand: Would we ask our employees to work in the office 1, 2 or 3 days each week? The answer was not as easy as the question implied, and the response looks and feels a bit different in every organization. However, now that we’ve adjusted to the ‘new normal’ of hybrid work, the even more important question is this: How do we engage our employees now that they’re back in the office?
It was only a few years ago that most employees worked in an office environment full-time and interactions with each other were natural and organic. In a short time, this has disappeared. While some employees were keen to return to a more familiar work environment, others grew accustomed to working remotely and were hesitant to return. Above all, each day in the office must be purposeful and intentional for employees. Nothing is worse than requiring employees to come into the office only to have them sit on Zoom/Teams calls all day and not have any in-person, face-to-face interaction. It is the responsibility of the people leader to make sure each in-office day has a positive impact on the professional and personal well-being of the employee. So, how do you do it?
Create meaningful connections. Coming together to connect in person feels different than any virtual meeting, no matter how good the technology is. As a leader, connecting with your people each time they are in the office is essential to success – both theirs and yours. Employee 1:1s, team meetings, Manager-Once-Removed chats, and brainstorming sessions should all be done in person. We’re all busy, but spending the first 30 minutes of your day walking around, talking to employees, and getting to know them on a personal level builds connections above and beyond an all-business meeting to review deliverables. With little to no free time in the hybrid world of back-to-back meetings, this may mean intentionally holding time in your calendar to talk to your people. And yes, putting in the effort! Leaders need to go beyond the surface – not just ask, “How are you?” and move on to the first agenda item. Understand your people’s hobbies and preferences, and build a personal relationship with them to strengthen trust and build connections. This may seem uncomfortable at first, but it slowly comes back naturally. Employees will begin to feel acknowledged as human ‘beings’ and not ‘human doings, which will only boost their engagement and productivity. People want to work hard for those they respect and trust, and those whom they feel respected and trust. This dialogue should be two-way - employees want to learn about their leaders and feel connected to them. They want to get to know the human behind the title, not the taskmaster. This small effort to share what’s important to you personally has a powerful impact. It creates psychological safety and trust between leaders and employees because they know each other on a deeper level beyond their workplace personas.
“Fostering belonging and community within and across teams is one of the most vital retention tools an organization can leverage - it goes a lot further in convincing employees to stay than paying $5k more than a competing offer.”
Once leaders build a connection with their employees, their employees will do this with each other, and strong, cohesive teams will form. Teams will look forward to coming into the physical office to connect and collaborate in person. Fostering belonging and community within and across teams is one of the most vital retention tools an organization can leverage - it goes a lot further in convincing employees to stay than paying $5k more than a competing offer.
Rebuild your work community. Once employees have reestablished their social norms in person within their immediate peer group, it's time to take that to the next level. Building connections and forming relationships with colleagues across departments contributes to creating a bigger organizational community, and this in turn strengthens culture and really makes it stick. Organizations might consider planning fun activities like wellness challenges or volunteer events and promoting cross-functional learning opportunities such as workshops or Lunch and Learns or establishing Employee Resource Groups themed around shared areas of interest. It's a really good feeling when you walk into an elevator and say hello to the person entering – it feels even better when you know their name and can engage in conversation.
Action. You may think this information is common sense, or that you have been doing all these things already. But ask yourself: do you know the last time your employee came in and was in back-to-back virtual meetings with no social connection all day long? Did you intersect with them to ensure they felt seen and heard, and derived value from their effort to come into the office? Did you personally have a day in the office where you were in back-to-back meetings and didn't socialize with your team? We all have, and that's why it's time to rebuild our habits as leaders. In a hybrid work environment, employee engagement is more important than ever, and it starts with us.