Support communication, culture and collaboration in the new work paradigm by addressing employees’ desire for both flexibility and human connection.

By Claudia Pascu

Early in 2020, no one could have imagined that in just a few months, our lives and work would be upended. We left our offices, switched to virtual meetings, and established new modes of productivity and leadership seemingly overnight.

With the easing of restrictions, organizations must now decide how to optimize the new work paradigm—starting with the foundational question of whether to stay virtual, adopt a hybrid model, or bring employees back full time. Uncertainty seems to be the prevailing sentiment of the moment. In a recent PwC survey of executives in the U.S., nearly one-third described their approach to post-pandemic remote work as “going with the flow.”

Remote work gives employees more flexibility, empowering them to manage their own schedules and improve their work-life balance. But it can also have detrimental side effects. A 2021 study from Microsoft, among others, revealed that remote work can erode communication, culture and collaboration, in turn undermining employee relationships, productivity and innovation.

Being social animals, we need connection and interaction. As behavioral scientist Jon Levy notes in You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, “The greatest punishment we give people in society is either solitary confinement or banishment from the group.” The adverse psychological consequences of social isolation are well documented.

And yet, a recent global survey by E&Y found that more than half of employees would leave their job if they were not given flexibility in where and when the work. This desire of today’s workforce to have both flexibility and connection is what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called the “Great Paradox”. How do we resolve this paradox? Here are a few steps HR leaders can take:

1. Re-establish human connection to ease the back-to-work transition.

To reignite team spirit and draw employees out of isolation, HR leaders can implement pilot programs for returning to the office, and test what works best. This should include offering the flexibility that employees now demand. Additionally, making sure every team member understands the plan and feels supported can promote buy-in.

It is also important to reinstate a sense of community at work. One way to do this is through human connection: Create space for informal exchanges, such as coffee breaks, where people have the chance to connect on a personal level. Bringing back normal interactions can reinvigorate teams. Such “micro moments” energize people and generate the kind of energy that cannot be replicated in a virtual space.

2. Create safe spaces to communicate with employees regularly.

Open, transparent communication can do wonders for employee relations, engagement and retention. To encourage it, make sure every team member feels free to share their opinion in meetings and one-on-one situations. Actively seek deeper connection with employees by acknowledging their contributions and showing appreciation.

Consistency is important here: Check in regularly with your teams not only to address issues, but to make sure that they have what they need, and to celebrate milestones and accomplishments. Ensure that crucial interactions such as performance evaluations, negotiations and important meetings happen in person, and that people understand the reasons behind management decisions.

3. Foster a shared sense of purpose.

To stay engaged and committed, people need to fully understand your organization’s purpose and vision for the future. They need to feel that they matter and that their work matters in the grand scheme of things. Working for a company that is giving back to the community or protecting the planet improves employee engagement, satisfaction, and ultimately performance.

When leaders and employees connect in a more meaningful way, it reinforces a sense of belonging to the organization. If teams are cohesive and have forged strong relationships, the results will follow. Moreover, a focus on a higher purpose not only amongst employees, but also with customers and suppliers can open new opportunities for companies to drive growth and profitability.

4. Implement productivity tools and make expectations crystal clear.

In the hybrid work model, measuring performance and individual accountability have become the focal point. Leaders need to build a culture around this new reality, and implement productivity tools to support it. Focus on simple processes that allow flexibility and transparency, and are easy to measure.

In the most effective companies, people know what is expected from them to succeed. Clear and unambiguous communication about goals and expectations, as well as how performance is measured at individual, departmental and organizational levels is key to securing consistent results and consolidating trust at every level within the company.

5. Make employee wellbeing a priority.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on mental health, putting employee wellbeing in the spotlight more than ever. The “always-on” syndrome created by the rapid shift to a virtual workplace has generated higher rates of burnout. People need time to disconnect, refocus and recharge.

Organizations that want to continue to be successful need to face this reality and deliberately implement strategies for well-being. Research shows that organizations that are addressing these needs have lower levels of absenteeism and higher rates of employee retention, productivity and overall satisfaction. The most proactive are implementing programs to build emotional intelligence, resilience and adaptability.

Without rushing to any definitive conclusion, we need to be aware that there is no magic bullet for creating the ideal office environment. Integrating on-site work with virtual work in the way that works best for your business model is the best option we have right now.

Organizations will need to continually assess their current state and adjust their needs, infrastructure and work environment. Thriving in the future of work requires us to keep our minds open to new perspectives and fluid solutions, and to take a more purposeful and human approach to our ways of working and building company culture.

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