Three-plus years after the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent millions of employees worldwide into work-from-home situations, the return to the office has begun in a major fashion.
But with many employees working in geographically dispersed organizations that employ a mix of in-office, hybrid and remote workers, it’s as important as ever for communicators to know how to create a culture of cohesion among coworkers who might not physically see one another frequently.
Not doing so could have some serious consequences —according to a recent survey by Checkr, more than half of in-person workers harbor feelings of jealousy and resentment toward their remote colleagues.
Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at, and point toward something communicators need to work on to get ahead of.
To gain a better perspective, we caught up with some comms experts to learn about the tactics they’ve taken to help maintain strong bonds between employees no matter their physical location.
Everyday culture differences
When we talk about workplace culture, it’s easy to think about company gatherings or the occasional group happy hour. But with the rise of geographically dispersed organizations, building a positive culture can manifest in different fashions.
According to Laniece Williams-Green, employee and leadership communications leader at Siemens Healthineers, there are key differences in how people in different work situations receive messaging, and it’s up to internal communicators to determine the best ways to reach out effectively.
“There are ways in which in-person employees interact with communication, such as signage around the office or other branding, that remote or hybrid employees don’t always have the same exposure to,” Williams-Green said.
Williams-Green shared an anecdote about her experiences with messaging employees within her organization who have differing work arrangements.
“We used to joke that when we needed to get people things on a Friday, that was a good time because we knew that people would be more stationary and able to receive a message regardless of location,” she said.
But it takes much more than that to pin down the right comms cadence, especially when you want to unite team members who might not be near one another.
“Reinforcing culture isn’t just about the in-person staff meetings — there’s a lot more to it than that,” she continued. “From a comms point of view, you build culture by sharing common experiences. Share the successes, challenges and lessons — that’s something people can bond over.”
Reducing potential tension
While focusing on the shared experiences is a good starting point for culture building regardless of where your team’s desks might be, it’s certainly not the only step you should take.
Consider the recent return-to-office trend, that’s been reported to have been laden with consternation from employees and double standards. Situations like this can sow the seeds of potential resentment from in-person employees toward their hybrid and remote colleagues, and sometimes the organization itself.
What to do, then?
Rod Hughes, president and principal of Kimball Hughes Public Relations, told us that a big part of the solution for employers and communications in kind is an equitable approach.
“You can’t just divide and conquer based on location,” Hughes said. “You need to figure out a way to be equitable.
That means flexibility for people on all sides of the work-location issue.
“We need to be just as considerate toward people coming into the office’s flexibility as we are for people working from home that might take time out of every day doing things like dropping their kids off or picking them up from school,” Hughes said.
Leveling that playing field might even come down to looking at how we compensate people for their time.
Organizations should also look at how compensation works regarding commuters, hybrid workers and remote employees.
“There’s a sacrifice that comes with commuting into an office, regardless of your job function,” said Williams-Green.
But what does the rethinking of employee needs like in practice?
“For remote workers, it’s setting up opportunities like Facetime with company leaders to prove they’re engaged and want to move up the ladder, even if they live and work far from an office,” William-Green said. “For in-person people, maybe that means increased flexibility in terms of office arrival times. For the best possible culture outcomes, we need to figure these pieces out.”
Keeping connectivity and the path forward
There’s more than one way to keep positive connections going from an interaction perspective and tweaks might need to be made along the way.
Hughes’ organization originally held twice daily stand-up calls to unite all employees, but when people found that to be a bit much, they adjusted based on feedback. He also called back to the virtual happy hours of 2020, which he concedes helped with connection, but no one really liked.
“These days, we do a 30-minute stand-up call and we build in a little extra time to socialize with the team,” he said. “That might be about the shows we’re watching and the books we’re reading — just creating spaces for us to communicate authentically.”
If this is the current reality, what’s the way forward?
DE&I communications leader Chris Pinto says that it all comes down to a people-centric approach.
“There’s just something to be said for fostering real, tangible connections,” he explained. “I think the future of work is going to look like some sort of permanent hybrid model, with some time at home and sometime around colleagues in an office setting.
While remote work has its benefits, oftentimes the connections can fade away as soon as the monitor screen is turned off after a call, affirming that the roots of company culture are interpersonal bonds.
“Communicators should be supportive of employees no matter where they’re working, of course,” he said, “but there’s no gimmick that can replace human connectivity and the bonds between people.”
Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.