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Viewpoint: To Get People Back in the Office, Make It Social

A group of people shaking hands at a business meeting.

​Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

While people around the world have been returning to restaurants, concerts and travel, there's one place many of them aren't going: the office. Many business leaders who craved, demanded or expected a five-day-a-week, nine-to-five return to office (RTO) have been disappointed, and in some cases even had to roll back mandates.

In today's hybrid world, "work" is increasingly something people do, not a place they 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, energized employees drive competitive advantage. But so far, business leaders have had more questions than answers about exactly how the office can best support and engage their people in a hybrid world. Our latest research at Microsoft reveals the answer may lie in what I believe should be front and center for every leader: reconnecting employees.

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

There's absolutely a strong desire among business decision makers (BDMs) to get people back into the office. Data from our latest Microsoft Work Trend Index research shows that 82% of BDMs say getting back to the office in person is a concern. But two years of zero commuting time and an ability to more effectively manage work-life balance means employees are looking for a compelling reason to schlep back to the office — and 73% of them say they need a better reason than just company expectations. So, the question becomes, what is a compelling reason to come into the office?

It's simple: People care about people.

When asked what would motivate them to come into the office, employees had a resounding answer: social time with coworkers:

  • 85% of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.
  • 84% of employees would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with coworkers.
  • 74% of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their "work friends" were there.
  • 73% of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there.

I felt that power of connection firsthand on a trip to the United Kingdom and Germany this spring — my first business travel since the pandemic began. As I met with local employees, customers, creators and students over the course of the week, I was blown away by how energized I felt — and I was reminded that it wasn't the physical office I'd missed, but the people at the office.

The data shows I'm not the only one feeling that way. With roughly half of employees saying their relationships outside their immediate work group have weakened and over 40% reporting that they feel disconnected from their company as a whole, ensuring people have an opportunity to reconnect will be crucial in the year ahead. And let's not forget the huge cohort of people who started or changed jobs during the pandemic shutdown. For them, every face is new.

Leaders recognize how difficult creating connection can be, with nearly 70% saying that ensuring cohesion and social connections within teams has been a moderate to major challenge due to the shift to hybrid. But now they need to recognize its importance and take action — or risk losing the social capital that keeps companies running.

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Return to Work

Leaders need to intentionally use the office to rebuild social capital: the value workers get from their networks, like getting new ideas and inspiration, being able to ask for help or advice, or finding new career growth opportunities. Social capital isn't a nice-to-have; it's crucial so that employees can do their best work and organizations can keep innovating. So setting the stage for meaningful connection at all levels should be at the core of every organization's RTO plans.

This starts with demonstrating to employees that coming to the office fulfills more than an arbitrary desire to see "bodies in seats." Leaders need to prioritize building and rebuilding connections between people to fuel creativity, teamwork and strong support systems that empower them to tackle challenges. Here are three ways to do it:

1. Strip away busywork

Make connection the top priority for in-person time. No one wants to go into the office just to spend the day on video calls and answering emails and pings. But that's what could happen, unless leaders and managers intentionally create both the space and the permission for employees to spend that time reconnecting.

Understand that this in-person socializing is not taking away from productivity — it's fueling innovation, psychological safety, retention and more. To foster and protect connection time, encourage employees and teams to set norms around expected response times while in the office so that being there doesn't become a blur of overlapping deadlines. And to alleviate anxiety around work piling up, consider instituting team meeting-free days or encouraging employees to book and protect focus time so people know they can catch up later. For example, consider meeting-free Fridays: Recharged from in-person time earlier in the week, employees get uninterrupted focus time and can spend the day in "get it done" mode.

2. Create new in-person rituals

To support the rebuilding of social capital and team bonds, leaders need to design experiences that bring people together in new ways. Create intentional opportunities for connection, like an extended catered lunch from a popular nearby restaurant to draw local employees into the office, or hold quarterly "team weeks" that bring local and remote employees together onsite for a series of daily workshops.

Younger employees are especially keen to use time in the office as a way to establish themselves as part of their workplace community and feel more connected to their coworkers. To a greater degree than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts, Gen Z and Millennial workers see the office as an opportunity to build relationships with senior leadership and their direct managers. But just as important, 78% of them said they're particularly motivated to work in person by seeing their work friends.

So, build in additional intentional in-person time for connection when onboarding new hires. And for early-in-career employees, think about creating focused events to help them build their networks. Just last month, I had the chance to do both when I spoke to our new Microsoft Marketing college hires as part of their week-long onboarding program. And although the goal was to inspire them, I walked away myself feeling inspired, energized and — yes — connected.

3. Whatever you do, do it with authenticity

In our latest Work Trend Index, 85% of employees ranked authenticity as the number-one quality a manager can have to support them to do their best work. The good news is that 83% of business decision makers say it's important for their senior leadership to show up authentically, so the level of awareness is relatively high all around.

What does authenticity look like in practice? It starts at the top by setting the tone for an authentic culture where open, genuine and empathetic connections can happen. You'll need to lead by example, using an authentic voice that communicates openness, inclusivity and that you're there to help people build their social capital. We ask people a lot at Microsoft to bring their full selves to work, and that's 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'm always asking myself how I can create a culture and work environment where every employee feels safe to connect on a deeper level, beyond transactional relationships.

Authentic culture and communication need to transcend physical space, since 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 connection is especially crucial to ensure we don't lose ground on inclusion; since employees from underrepresented groups are more likely to prefer remote work, leaders need to be sure that their communications reach all employees, wherever they work. Embracing multimedia formats like podcasts or interacting on internal forums creates an ongoing conversation and two-way dialogue, helping keep people feeling connected, informed and engaged. For example, I always receive more questions than I can get to in the live Q&A portion of my all-hands. But the conversation doesn't need to end when the event does — instead, my leadership team and I follow up on unanswered employee questions in our Microsoft Marketing forum, keeping the discussion and flow of information going.

We're all still learning how to get hybrid work right. From the research, it's clear that putting people at the center by fostering connection between employees is key to the new role of the office.

Chris Capossela is Microsoft's chief marketing officer and executive vice president of worldwide consumer business. As the chief marketing officer, Capossela runs marketing across both the consumer and commercial businesses, which includes marketing for all Microsoft services and products, business planning, brand, advertising, events, communications and research. As leader of the worldwide consumer business, Capossela oversees the Consumer Channel Sales and Marketing team, Microsoft Advertising Sales; and Microsoft Stores. These teams are responsible for driving revenue, growth and share across the consumer business.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.


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