The majority of the workforce has been working remotely for almost two years. Not only have they figured out how to make it work, but many of them also want it to stay that way. The reasons are wide-ranging, but typically include fewer distractions, saving time, and enhanced well-being.
Alternatively, many organizations are pushing for the opposite—requiring that employees come back to the office every day or most days. The reasons typically involve the need to maintain organizational culture, ensure collaboration, and keep people engaged.
So who’s got it right? Those leaders looking to return to the traditional, face-to-face workspace, or employees vying for flexible arrangements that leverage technology?
In many cases, organizations are making inaccurate assumptions about the downsides of using technology to collaborate. If done right, virtual and hybrid work arrangements work just fine. At the same time, employees will need to commit to new team-building norms. Working remotely is not a permanent hall pass, which allows workers to disappear for extended periods of time.
Incorrect assumptions about organizational dynamics
The primary organizational concern of moving to a virtual or hybrid work environment is the desire to maintain a positive organizational culture. The problem is that organizations are incorrectly assuming a strong overlap between organizational culture and high-quality collaboration and engagement.
Culture entails shared norms and assumptions, or “the way things are done around here.” And like it or not, culture is driven by people, not policy. Organizations should first seek to understand where and how their employees want to work, and then decide how to increase collaboration and engagement.
Organizations should also keep in mind that high-quality collaboration isn’t automatic in face-to-face settings. Getting there entails focusing on improving what organizational psychologists call “team processes” such as psychological safety, information sharing, and constructive conflict. So instead of focusing on maintaining a culture of face-to-face interaction (which has a chance of becoming irrelevant in the future) it’s time to get up to speed on how to support and reinforce high-quality interactions in virtual and hybrid work settings.
Similar to collaboration, assumptions about engagement as it relates to culture and work policy are also misunderstood. Engagement is a motivational construct. It has little to do with whether people show up to work physically, and everything to do with how people show up to work psychologically. To enhance engagement starts with listening to your employees. If they think like the majority of the workforce, they’ll report that they’re more likely to be engaged when they have an increase in autonomy, not mandates on work location.
Another assumption is that things will eventually go back to “normal.” Employees now have a taste of remote work, and they won’t soon forget it. Recent research demonstrates that employees not only want flexible work arrangements more than ever, but they are also even willing to give up a higher salary for this heightened flexibility. Companies will soon realize that it will be increasingly harder to attract and retain top talent if they require on-site work or have restrictive hybrid policies. Therefore, organizations that adapt to employee needs will win the ongoing, long-term talent war.
Employee engagement means committing to new norms
If organizations want to maintain a positive organizational culture, encourage collaboration, and facilitate employee engagement, they should consider strategically implementing predefined virtual and face-to-face team experiences. And if employees want organizations to be comfortable with virtual or hybrid work arrangements, they need to be wholeheartedly willing to participate in maintaining exceptional interactions with team members.
In virtual or hybrid environments, employees are less likely to casually interact with colleagues, making it harder to build rapport and trust. Relatedly, employees are less likely to have moments of cross-functional information sharing, which can facilitate creativity and innovation at the team- and organization-level.
These are valid organizational concerns. If organizations are going to allow employees to forgo the in-office experience, employees need to embrace some virtual team coordination and team-building experiences. Along these lines, many organizations appear to be settling on a three-pronged approach.
Worker engagement tips
First, have a daily (or weekly), 15-minute virtual “stand up” meeting. Everyone joins a virtual meeting where a manager or team leader gives important updates and team members ask pressing questions. The goal is to get everyone on the same page and prioritize tasks, but then let everyone get back to work.
Employees need to be willing to exchange their long commute for these regular check-ins and come prepared to listen and ask questions. It signals accountability and ensures that everyone is staying on top of their work. The vast majority of people will still net a time surplus; especially those that already have semi-regular team meetings.
Second, have a weekly (or monthly), one-hour virtual lunch meeting. During these sessions, the team should celebrate wins, call out team members that are doing great work, and share personal stories. The goal is to build internal team rapport, trust, and camaraderie.
Keeping the tone positive, while balancing a bit of formal with informal conversation can help replace the in-office, watercooler chit chat. In several respects, the virtual version is even better than the in-office version, as it ensures that everyone participates on a more regular basis.
Employees can’t be passive in these sessions. They need to engage with others, make an effort to ask questions, and buck up when it’s their turn to share. Although it might feel unnatural to some, it should feel like a small compromise compared to the annoying, ill-timed drop-ins from overly talkative team members.
Third, have semi-annual (or annual) in-person retreats. During these sessions, organizations should focus on big-picture strategy, explanations of new or emerging changes, organized brainstorming, and cross-functional team member introductions. Planned fun through team-building activities is fine, but be careful not to degrade the seriousness of the meeting.
The goal is to create an organized experience where employees will be present and be fully immersed in team-based activities where they can learn and grow as a team. The experience should replace the unorganized, ad hoc versions of these activities that occur in on-site settings. For the employees who would not like to attend an on-site event, it may be time to put things into perspective. Do they remember 2019? It’s better than commuting every day. Further, they should keep in mind that meeting someone face-to-face, even if just once, could go a long way in building connections, especially with newcomers. This might sound like a great deal of time, but if employees want the freedom to work wherever they’d like, these are important substitutions. With freedom comes responsibility, and it’s important that employees put in the time to contribute to team development.
As many teams are learning, figuring out whether to be on-site, hybrid, virtual, or some combination thereof, is filled with misunderstandings from both directions. For those working in HR or people operations, this will be their biggest opportunity to shine (or fail) since employer-sponsored benefit plans hit the scene in the 1940s. Their primary challenge will be to dispel organization assumptions about work location. From there, the next important challenge is ensuring that everyone is committed to the latest version of team norms.
Scott Dust, PhD, is a management professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, an HR–tech platform that helps organizations create amazing teams.