If 2020 was the year of remote working, the second half of 2021 is poised to usher in a new era of hybrid working. Corporate leaders around the world have been planning for this eventuality for some time: monitoring employee productivity, calculating cost-benefit analysis to capitalize their real estate footprint, and ensuring a safe environment within offices and other work locations, among other activities. In turn, communications leaders have been tasked with helping to shape another integral component of the “return to office” strategy: organizational culture.
The stakes are high. Organizations seek to retain and recruit top talent; the pace of hiring and wage growth is growing; and the increasingly remote work environment opens up competition for talent across geographic locations. It is no surprise, then, that according to a recent Gartner study, most executive teams (68%) are reevaluating how the company culture reflects the new normal of remote or hybrid work.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Individuals experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in several different ways, and so too do employees hold varying expectations for their future work environment. As such, many communications leaders are deploying regular surveys to monitor employee sentiment about returning to the office, and plan to continue to do so during the transition to the hybrid environment.
Most notably, communicators are paying close attention to the language they use during this period. Some organizations swapped “return to work” terminology for “return to office,” recognizing that many employees reported working harder and longer than ever at home over the past year. For those “essential” employees who never left their work environment throughout the pandemic, balancing corporate messaging to recognize their experiences is critical. Moving forward, many organizations are adopting a policy of “one remote, all remote,” so office workers can continue to engage with remote workers on a level playing field (i.e. those gathered in a conference room will still use their laptop to log into the virtual meeting with remote workers).
Keys to Success
Marketing and communication leaders, as well as their peers in HR, should consider how they can engage employees at all levels, from the C-suite to individual contributors, in the process of shaping organizational culture for a hybrid work environment. Starting at the top, many organizations are inviting executives who are among the first to return to offices to serve as “greeters” to welcome returning employees. Executives are managing a calendar of regular site visits to recognize employees and create an inviting atmosphere. Communications leaders are planning welcome activities for the first wave of returnees who might be eager to return to the office and team-building activities for colleagues who return at a later date.
Managers can play an outsized role in maintaining employee engagement during this transition and in the new hybrid work environment. In addition to cascading information about the logistics of the new work environment, they should also lead their teams in dialogue to better understand their concerns and potential barriers to success. This will ensure they are addressing challenges when possible and escalating them to leadership as appropriate.
Individual employees also have a stake in helping to shape culture in this environment. Communications leaders should create opportunities for them to share their experiences with their peers, both upon returning to the office and as they navigate the new hybrid work environment. This could take the form of employee storytelling campaigns, “return to office” ambassador programs, and other forums that provide an opportunity for workers to engage with colleagues, whether in-person or remotely.
2020 brought unprecedented disruptions to the employee experience – from a global pandemic to remote working to a flourishing of social activism – that will have ramifications for years if not decades. Similarly, leaders should recognize that the choices they make in engaging employees today will also shape their organizational culture for years to come.