Three Tips to Draw Employees Back to the Office

March 4, 2024
Mike Stallard

Can real-life office connections save lives? Consider this: a chance meeting in an office setting years ago set in motion a vaccine to prevent untold number of deaths due to Covid-19.

Dr. Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Wiseman, both researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, got to talking one day about their respective areas of RNA and immunology as they took turns using a copier. That friendly conversation led to a collaboration that ultimately resulted in the mRNA technology used in the first Covid-19 vaccines. For their pioneering work, in 2023 the two were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Chance encounters that spark innovation is one reason why leaders advocate for a full return to the office. However, this policy makes attracting and retaining the best employees difficult. Work has not returned to pre-pandemic norms. Many of the best employees prefer maximum flexibility and favor employers who provide that flexibility. Requiring people to be at the office five days a week will be a deal breaker for many people going forward.

Recent research by Gallup on remote-capable employees found that only 20 percent work entirely on-site, 30 percent work entirely remotely, and 50 percent of them have hybrid work arrangements. In addition, Gallup found that eight in ten remote-capable employees expect to work hybrid or fully remote.

What if leaders thought about this differently? Rather than strictly dictating being on-site, consider offering employees the flexibility to work remotely part of the time then make being in the office such a positive, inclusive, and energizing experience that people want to be in the office together. Leaders can do this through cultivating a culture that is rich in relational connection.

Why Connection Cultures Are Attractive

Here’s why this approach works. As I explained in Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, a culture of connection meets the seven universal human needs at work:

  • Respect
  • Recognition
  • Belonging
  • Autonomy
  • Personal growth
  • Meaning
  • Progress

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment that offers these benefits?

Employers benefit, too. Connection cultures boost employee engagement, improve the quality of decisions, increase the rate of innovation, and much more. Only this type of culture is a win-win for employees and employers.

How to Create a Connection Culture

Great leaders recognize that perks, creature comforts, and a cool office vibe aren’t enough to create an environment where people want to be. Instead, they look for ways to boost these three building blocks of a relationally rich Connection Culture:

  • Communicate a vision that inspires and unites people
  • Value people as individuals instead of thinking of or treating them as mere means to an end
  • Give people a voice to share their opinions then consider their input when possible

Three Ideas to Try

  • Ask your employees for feedback…and really listen. See what they think about the direction of your company, the current work environment, their perspective on being back in office, and what they would do differently if they could. What have they appreciated about working from home? What have they missed about being in the office?
  • Bring back a pre-pandemic favorite or start a unique new tradition. Was the annual chili cookoff always a big hit? Did your team bond over shopping for and wrapping gifts for underprivileged kids around the holidays? These less frequent, but highly meaningful, traditions are the perfect candidates to bring back. You can also start a new tradition that ties into your local culture, like a crawfish boil, clam bake, or barbeque. Aim to offer a meaningful connection opportunity on a quarterly basis.
  • Find your weak spots, then strengthen them. Take an honest look at how connecting and engaging your various team sub-cultures are. Use past employee engagement surveys, opinions expressed in exit interviews, and what you’ve picked up through conversations and observations. Identify the teams that would benefit from more focused efforts to improve connection and start there. Identify the leaders or team members who would benefit from mentoring to improve their connection skills, then offer it to them.

Three Ideas to Skip

  • Make a one-size-fits-all policy decision. Instead, consider the level of in-person interaction that is truly necessary for each team to do their work well.
  • Offer “fun” that isn’t really fun. Friday pizza parties and 8 am Monday bagels and coffee won’t truly incentivize anyone who wasn’t planning to be at the office anyway to come. Would you brave a Monday morning commute just for a bagel? Save those budget dollars and put them toward something your team will truly enjoy.
  • Put different requirements on local versus remote workers. A common complaint from locals who are required to be in office is that they still end up spending most of their in-office time on Zoom calls because of geographically dispersed team members. If your team has members who can’t come to the office regularly due to geographic constraints, consider reserving mandatory in-office time for those less frequent occasions when everyone can truly be together.

The Bottom Line

We all want to reap the benefits that come with in-person interactions, but return to office initiatives will fail unless backed by an engaging in-office environment. Gain a competitive advantage in the war for talent by fostering a Connection Culture. Your employees – and bottom line – will thank you.

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

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