By Ellen Raim
For months I have been watching with dismay as the conversation about the need to return to the office reached a fever pitch. I didn’t understand why leaders were adamant about people congregating in a physical space. I was astonished that some leaders are so resolute about the need to be in person that they have instructed managers to highlight low office attendance in performance reviews.
There is data that shows that working from home is what most employees prefer, and 70 million of us are still operating remotely. So requiring everyone to come back to the office is a heavy lift.
Why do it then? Surely not all of us that are still at home are failing. In fact, the data indicates that remote employees do more work in less time than they did when they were in the office, and they work longer hours. Still, there is a push to return to the building, and leaders are claiming their employees are less productive. They also complain that business is not running well.
I couldn’t harmonize these two views. Was it that managers do not trust their employees despite the work-being produced? Are they unsure of their own leadership abilities in the changed world and merely trying to recreate the past? Leaders say the office is necessary for collaboration and innovation. They talk about culture and engagement dwindling. The claims felt vague.
I think I have finally figured out what is going on; what leaders are feeling is real, they have just described it imprecisely. What is actually happening is that In a hybrid/remote world, networks are fraying. What Gartner calls the employee ecosystem is dissolving before manager’s eyes.
In more specific terms, when teams are no longer physically proximate, communication becomes much more transactional. Employees meet with their core teams about the progress on particular projects. These more efficient and focused core team meetings have allowed groups to easily hit their goals. Spending more time connected increases information transfer through the silo. So, projects are able to be more streamlined, which improves productivity. Working from home, these established teams have built even stronger ties than they had pre-pandemic. This may be why employees feel that remote and hybrid designs are working fine.
The troubling outcome I think leaders see is that remote and hybrid workers have fewer interactions with people outside their silos. Relationships with these people are called weak ties. According to an MIT study of 61,000 Microsoft employees, the share of time spent with weak ties has dropped by 25%. Turns out, even superficial conversations with people not directly connected to your key project are important. Weak ties increase information access and flow outside a core team. Weak ties also allow distant groups of people to learn new information that can lead to novel ideas, new opportunities and even increased innovation.
So, both leaders and employees are “right” there have been communication gains and losses that have business impact. But making a final decision on whether returning to the office or staying home is the better path requires a bit more analysis.There are two other types of interactions to think about: connection to culture and meaningful relationships.
Let’s start with relationships. According to a Forbes Health survey, respondents said it’s harder to form relationships since the pandemic. Another study in 2022 found that over half of the hybrid or remote employees surveyed said they had fewer work friends now than when they were in the office full time. Employees need work friendships. In a study by OfficeVibe, 70% of employees with whom they spoke said that office friends were crucial to a happy work life. Friends also help people feel safe, so they perform at a higher level.
Second, without ties to culture, employees feel they cannot be effective in their jobs. Connection to culture according to Gartner, “means that employees identify with the culture, care about it and feel they belong in it”. Their research shows that right now, only 25% of employees feel a strong link to the culture. In the past, leaders relied on physical proximity to organically produce the emotional experiences that link us to culture. That shortcut is gone now. The employee ecosystem is eroding because we have lost an easy way to meaningfully bond.
Creating meaningful opportunities to connect squarely belongs to leadership. Insisting employees who live close to the office must be back at their desks seems like a quick solution. In reality, it’s not going to fix the problem. Most companies hired remote workers during the pandemic. They learned that by doing this they were able to tap into new and powerful talent markets . Remote hiring also brings more women, people of color and differently abled individuals into company ranks. Now, 27% of all employees work remotely full time and 16% of companies are remote only. Short of terminating all the employees who live too far away to drive into the office, the new organizational “normal” is hybrid.
So, establishing the connective tissue that will alleviate loneliness, improve communication flow and create allegiance to the culture must be intentionally built with both online and in person experiences in mind. In other words, rebuilding bonds will not be successful if an employer’s strategy stops with telling people to be in the office. Social media is filled with employees decrying the consequences of a poorly thought-out plan. Some employees who have returned say they spend most of their day in their cubicle in front of their computer on zoom calls. This is the worst of both worlds. Others say that on days they come to work no one else is there so the oft-mentioned in person collaboration is not happening.
Here are some examples of what companies are doing that can create the missing informational and emotional connections:
Mandatory one on ones where a wide range of information is shared—The CEO of Twine explained that there is a huge value in employees understanding how their role fits into the big picture and who they can seek out for more information. He requires managers to hold regular one on ones where they ensure knowledge and information is shared. Twine
Encourage employees to build at least three unique networks—The leaders at Salesforce ask their employees to find and nurture three distinct communities. They are encouraged to build a cohort in their geographical area, connections with their immediate work group, and a relationship with a set of employees that share a similar interest. Salesforce
Organizing regular social events—The leadership at the Movemember Foundation promotes cross-functional team interaction by organizing periodic social events or rallying a co-located team to participate with a charity. Movemember
Post personal profiles on internal networks—The COO of Fastmail suggests that companies post profiles of willing employees on internal networks so people can get to know each other. I have also seen profiles put in company newsletters. Fastmail
Devote resources to employee wellbeing and connection— Pinterest has built internal culture committees whose job it is to focus on employee wellbeing and build experiences and programs to foster connection. Pinsideout
Focus on making the remote culture thrive—Hubspot has published a comprehensive and thorough guide to helping organizations that have remote teams flourish. Hubspot
It’s obvious to both leadership and employees that important weak ties are fraying, even as the stronger ones are getting stronger. It is clear that something must be done. But it’s important to find the right way to keep the threads from unraveling further.
Acknowledging that many things are different in the post-pandemic world including the fact that many companies will never be completely co-located again is the first step. Then organizations can find personal and meaningful ways to rebuild connections that drive productivity, creativity and wellness.