Editor’s note: This article by AIIR CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner originally appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine.
Millions of people have been working from home and rarely going to the office for the past two years. As companies have tried to figure out what model works the best, many have decided hybrid work is the best of both worlds. It’s an office environment unlike anything we’ve seen before, and many leaders are still scrambling to catch up.
Corporate leaders need to understand that the connective thread between in-person and remote work is community. A community is a collectively held concept that transcends physical space. Community can thus be the bridge between the worlds of working from home and the physical office.
So, how do we create a vibrant office community to bring cohesion, engagement, and a sense of thriving for every team member, whether they come to the office or work from home?
Even with new technology that makes working remotely more accessible than ever, we cannot ignore the importance of the physical world.
Emphasizing community and creating spaces for employees to connect face-to-face can begin with onboarding. At my company, we’ve traditionally done new-hire onboarding individually with the person’s manager. But during our most recent onboarding class, we flew new hires to Philadelphia for two days of orientation. They got to know each other in the flesh while having an immersive experience in our office.
It was quite the investment, and yet, we have conviction that this approach will catalyze culture building, accelerate new employee integration, and lead to greater engagement and productivity over the long term. By coming together in person, we stimulate connection, new ideas, and valuable opportunities for communal growth.
Another physical tool for bolstering a sense of community and belonging is company swag. Company swag has always been a fun nice-to-have, but when you’re working remotely and coming into the office with far less frequency, swag can take on a whole new purpose.
A company t-shirt, a mug, or even just a few stickers can be useful heuristics that remind us where we work and the pride we feel in our brand. Even if someone works hundreds of miles away, sending something as simple as a company t-shirt can help people feel more connected to those they work with through a shared identity.
With the shift to remote work in 2020 also came a loss of human connection. Suddenly, there were no more quick chats at the water cooler or drinks at the bar after the office closed. You couldn’t shout out to your co-worker in the office next door, asking them to glance at something you were working on.
The recent shift to hybrid has helped this problem and brought back quick chats and impromptu meetings (albeit less frequently), but there are still people who work in the office on different days and others who are fully remote.
Now, if we want to bounce around ideas or check in on a project when our in-person days are different, we have to set aside time on the calendar and schedule a video conference meeting. It turns what was once an organic and informal interaction into something planned and formal. This creates a vicious cycle as no one feels naturally inclined to schedule virtual meetings for informal dialogue. As such, the disparity between those working in and out of the office can quickly grow.
So what can we do about it? We have to make space for our people to get to know each other on a holistic level, not just through the messages they ping back and forth about upcoming projects. One way my company is trying to do this is through a Slack channel called “out of office.” Here, everyone posts pictures of their kids, pets, gardens, vacations and more.
The better we get to know each other, the greater connection and trust we cultivate. And with greater connection and trust, we can communicate more easily and create more space for spontaneous connection, creativity, and innovation.
One of the primary jobs of a leader is to make decisions, and sometimes that has to be done unilaterally. When designing your future office community, though, there is a decisive advantage to doing this collaboratively to achieve maximum buy-in.
Utilize a collaborative model for creating office community operating principles or norms. Don’t be afraid to throw it all on the table, asking, “What does everyone need or want to make this community the best it can be?”
These discussions can be about whether or not we type in the chat or speak up during hybrid video conference meetings, what we wear to work, and more. By listening to the needs of your people and paying close attention to context, you may be able to create a specific set of operating principles that unlock your office community and take it to the next level.
Finally, leadership must seek out and listen closely to feedback while creating channels for safe and open dialogue. We may try things that fail, but that comes with the territory during experimentation. The messiness of intentional experimentation is mitigated by clear and open dialogue, a willingness to learn, and the leaders’ ability to constantly adapt.
The problems we anticipated seeing upon the arrival of hybrid work models have arrived. However, it is one thing to anticipate something in theory but another to deal with it in practice. Many leaders and organizations are stuck in old patterns, preserving old paradigms and hoping that a new set of best practices will magically manifest.
We have to change our thinking — building our future office community is an opportunity, not a heavy burden. As a leader, give yourself permission to think expansively, bring in your team, and co-create a future community that empowers your mission.
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