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To Get People Back in the Office, Make It Social

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While people around the world have been returning to restaurants, concerts, and travel, there is one place many of them don’t go to: the office. Many business leaders who coveted, demanded, or expected a nine-to-five return to their positions five days a week or nine-to-five have been disappointed, and in some cases have had to back down on mandates.

In today’s hybrid world, “work” is increasingly becoming something people do, rather than a place to go. There’s no going back to 2019, so it’s time to rethink the role of the office – for both workers and businesses.

Empowered and energetic employees drive competitive advantage. But so far, business leaders have had more questions than answers about how the office can best support and engage their employees in a hybrid world. Our latest research at Microsoft reveals that the answer may lie in what I believe should be front and center for every leader: reconnecting with employees.

The value of an office is in the people, not the place

There is a very strong desire among business decision makers (BDMs) to bring people back to the office. Data from our latest research into the Microsoft Business Trends Index shows that 82% of BDMs say returning to the office in person is a concern. But, two years of no commute time and the ability to manage work-life balance more effectively means employees are looking for a compelling reason to return to the office — and 73% of them say they need a reason better than just the company’s expectations. So, the question becomes, what he is A compelling reason to enter the office?

It’s simple: people care about people.

When employees were asked what motivates them to come into the office, they had a resounding answer: social time with co-workers:

  • 85% of employees will be excited to go to the office to rebuild team bonds.
  • 84% of employees would be excited to go to the office if they could connect with co-workers.
  • 74% of employees go to the office more frequently if they know their “work friends” are there.
  • 73% of employees go to the office more frequently if they know their immediate team members will be there.

I felt this power of connection firsthand on a trip to the UK and Germany this spring – my first business trip since the pandemic began. As I met the local staff, clients, creators, and students throughout the week, I was amazed at how energized I felt—and remembered that it wasn’t the actual office I missed, but the people in the desk.

The data shows that I’m not the only one who feels this way. With nearly half of employees saying their relationships outside of their immediate work group have weakened and more than 40% reporting feeling disconnected from their company as a whole, ensuring people have a chance to reconnect will be critical in the year ahead. And let’s not forget the huge group of people who started or changed jobs during the pandemic shutdown. For them, every face is new.

Leaders understand how difficult it is to establish connection, with nearly 70% saying that ensuring cohesion and social connections within teams was a moderate to significant challenge due to the shift to hybrid. But now they need to realize its importance and take action — or risk losing the social capital that keeps companies running.

Leaders need to use the office on purpose to rebuild social capital: the value workers get from their networks, such as having access to new ideas and inspiration, the ability to seek help or advice, or finding new opportunities for career growth. Social capital is not a nice thing; It is critical that employees can do their best work and organizations can continue to innovate. So paving the way for meaningful communication at all levels should be at the heart of every organization’s RTO plans.

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This begins with proving to the employees that coming into the office fulfills more than an arbitrary desire to see “corpses in the benches.” Leaders need to prioritize building and rebuilding connections between people to nurture creativity, teamwork, and strong support systems that enable them to meet challenges. Here are three ways to do this.

Get rid of busy work

Make communication the top priority of personal time. No one wants to go to the office just to spend the day on video calls and answering emails and voices. But that’s what can happen, unless leaders and managers intentionally create both space and permission for employees to spend that time reconnecting.

Understand that this personal socialization does not detract from productivity – it nurtures creativity, psychological integrity, retention, and more. To enhance and protect contact time, encourage employees and teams to set standards around expected response times while they are in the office so that being there does not become a blur of overlapping deadlines. To alleviate anxiety about backlogs, consider setting aside days off team meetings or encouraging employees to book and protect focus time so people know they can catch up later. For example, consider meeting-free Fridays: Recharge from in-person time earlier in the week, where employees get continuous focus time and can spend the day in a “get it done” mode.

Create a new character ritual

To support rebuilding social capital and team connections, leaders need to design experiences that bring people together in new ways. Create intentional opportunities for connection, such as an extended lunch from a popular nearby restaurant to attract local employees to the office, or hold quarterly “team weeks” that bring local and remote employees together on site for a series of daily workshops.

Younger employees are especially keen on using time in the office as a way to establish themselves as part of their workplace community and feel more connected to their co-workers. To a greater degree than their counterparts Generation X and Boomer, Generation Z and Millennial workers see the office as an opportunity to build relationships with senior leadership and their line managers. But just as importantly, 78% of them said they had a particular incentive to work in person by seeing work friends.

Therefore, purposefully set aside extra personal time for networking when hiring new employees. And for early-career employees, consider creating focused events to help them build their networks. Just last month, I had the opportunity to do both when I spoke to new hires at Microsoft’s School of Marketing as part of a week-long onboarding program. Although the goal was inspiration theyI’ve walked away from myself feeling inspired, energized, and connected.

Whatever you do, do it authentically

In our latest Work Attitude Index, 85% of employees rated authenticity as the number one quality a manager can support to do the best job. The good news is that 83% of business decision makers say it is important for their senior leadership to appear authentic, so the level of awareness is relatively high everywhere.

So what does authenticity look like in practice? It starts at the top, by setting the tone for an authentic culture where open, authentic, and emotional connections can occur. You will need to lead by example, using an authentic voice that conveys openness and inclusivity and that you are there to help people build their social capital. We often ask people at Microsoft to bring their full selves to work, and this is only possible when they have psychological safety, especially for employees who come from underrepresented groups and may not see themselves in the people around them. As a leader, I always ask myself how I can create a culture and work environment in which every employee feels safe to connect on a deeper level beyond transactional relationships.

Authentic culture and communication need to go beyond the physical space, as not every employee will be in the office every day or even every month or quarter, depending on where they live. Increasing the surface area for contact is particularly critical to ensuring that no ground is lost when embedding; Since employees from underrepresented groups prefer remote work, leaders need to make sure their communications get through. All employees, wherever they work. Adopting multimedia formats such as podcasts or interacting in internal forums creates ongoing conversation and two-way dialogue, helping to keep people connected, informed and engaged. For example, I always get more questions than I can access in the live Q&A pane out of all my hands. But the conversation doesn’t need to be ended when the event is over—instead, the leadership team and I follow up on employee questions that go unanswered in the Microsoft Marketing Forum, keeping the discussion going and the information flowing.

We’re all still learning how to get the mixed action right. Through research, it is clear that putting people at the center by enhancing communication between employees is key to the new role of the office.

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