Return to office discussions are ringing somewhat hollow these days as companies continue to push back their target dates, suspend their return plans indefinitely or grant employees the right to determine if and when they want to return. Even the concept of ‘return to office’ is misleading because there’s no real expectation that employees will resume their pre-Covid work schedules anytime soon, if ever.
Hybrid work conditions in which employees conduct business from their homes, corporate offices and third party locations are widely considered to be the way in which post pandemic knowledge work will be performed. Planning for the eventual return of employees continues however, even in the face of widespread uncertainty about when, if and how corporate offices will function in the future.
Executives have focused – somewhat obsessively – on the mechanics of supporting hybrid work conditions. New office designs are being implemented that expand collaboration space at the expense of conventional office cubicles. Snack bars and breakout rooms are being rearchitected to discourage the congregation of employees. Many conference rooms are being downsized for similar reasons.
New systems are being implemented for scheduling office time, reserving office space and managing office visitors. New collaboration tools have been deployed to coordinate activities performed by physically dispersed teams. New policies are being formulated to manage Covid vaccination records and respond to the discovery of Covid-infected employees on company premises. And some companies are providing employees with stipends to equip and maintain their home offices for sustained business use in the future.
These plans are all necessary and important but what is being done to address the most important aspect of the post pandemic workplace? How will effective co-worker relationships be established and nurtured under hybrid work conditions?
Why are co-worker relationships important?
This almost seems too obvious to state but co-worker relationships provide the catalyst that enables business alignment, emotional commitment and personal accountability within a company’s workforce. Relationships lubricate the execution of routine tasks, operational activities and major projects.
The workplace is not a sterile environment in which individuals operate as automatons, receiving instructions from an all-knowing and all-seeing supervisor who synthesizes their work products into an integrated business deliverable or outcome. It is a dynamic human environment fueled in large part by the emotions generated by co-worker relationships.
The quantity and quality of work performed by individuals depends directly upon the trust, respect and empathy they have for their co-workers. These emotions are typically established through common work experiences, common interests (on and off the job) or just plain spending time in each other’s presence. The most important but least discussed aspect of return to office planning is determining how these emotions can be fostered and maintained in a hybrid workplace.
The power of physical presence
Why do sales people go to such great lengths to invite their clients to lunches, dinners, golf outings and sporting events? Because they figured out a long time ago that the simple act of spending time with a customer is an effective means of establishing a basic level of interpersonal empathy that can be drawn upon to initiate future sales conversations. The physical act of eating with others is a particularly powerful means of establishing interpersonal empathy. That’s why families are encouraged to eat together as frequently as possible.
Physical presence plays a predominant role in human communication. Past studies have shown that roughly 50% of human communication is based upon physical body language and 40% is based on the tone and intonation of spoken words – not the words themselves. Zoom meetings are incapable of recreating or capturing the physical and verbal nuances that routinely accompany physical human interactions.
Physical presence may not always be beneficial. In some instances it may be unpleasant or intimidating. But in most cases it establishes a set of sensory expectations regarding the customary behaviors and attitudes of one’s co-workers that enhances an individual’s ability to focus on their work tasks and assignments. It’s difficult to be productive in an impersonal and unpredictable working environment. Presence provides a deeper level of workplace predictability that enables employees to make the best use of their time on the job.
The significance of spontaneous sharing
Co-worker relationships are based upon far more than structured business interactions that occur via email, text messages or planned meetings. They are based – in part – on the spontaneous sharing of work-related and non-work-related events, experiences, activities, successes, failures, problems, concerns and feelings.
Spontaneous sharing can occur in the most unlikely places and at the most unlikely times. It can happen in bite-sized snippets or extended conversations. Sharing is key to identifying common interests and perspectives among co-workers, and also key to understanding differences in outlook or opinion that may influence future interactions.
The lessons of ambient learning
Ambient learning occurs when individuals listen to work colleagues discuss activities outside their area of personal responsibility. In some respects ambient learning can be far more useful and powerful than instructional learning. It can provide practical insight into the business significance of different operational activities, cross functional work dependencies, organizational barriers and – perhaps most importantly – ‘how things really get done around here’.
By definition, ambient learning provides individuals with a broader understanding of how their role contributes to the success of their companies. Ideally, this ‘big picture’ knowledge can reduce silo behaviors, improve personal productivity and engender a sense of belonging to an organization that is satisfying the needs of its customers in unique and innovative ways.
The future of workplace relationships
Physical presence, spontaneous sharing and ambient learning establish a mesh of co-worker relationships that are a corporate asset, supporting the day-to-day operations of every commercial enterprise. This asset is as important to the success of a commercial business as its intellectual property, manufacturing facilities, procurement practices, compensation policies, etc. It exists at multiple levels within an organization. Much like a bank account, the social capital established within a workplace is drawn upon to confront the tactical and strategic challenges encountered by individuals, teams, functional departments and entire enterprises.
So the real question becomes: how will physical presence, spontaneous sharing and ambient learning occur within the hybrid, virtual-first, asynchronous workplace of the 2020s? Co-worker presence, sharing and learning won’t disappear altogether in the post pandemic world, but will they be sufficient to establish a social mesh with the depth and resilience that commercial firms have relied upon in the past?
Leaders have tried to nurture co-worker relationships during the Covid crisis by scheduling online water cooler meetings with no working agendas; playing online games; staging online parties; and occasionally holding in person team-building events. Although these activities are all well intentioned, they’re correctly perceived to be contrived and artificial. They’re a poor substitute for workplace interactions that occurred prior to Covid and are rarely sustained after their initial novelty value has worn off.
The best way of fostering co-working relationships is through work itself. Leaders who constantly strive to make work more engaging and meaningful will force their teams to develop higher standards of mutual alignment, commitment and accountability which is the ultimate business goal of healthy co-worker relationships.
Leaders can make work more engaging by eliminating bureaucratic practices, minimizing busywork, raising performance expectations and creating opportunities for employees to broaden their skills through challenging work assignments. Leaders make work more meaningful by continually stressing the value their teams are delivering to the customers of their businesses. Workplace engagement and meaning should be fostered under any working conditions but are doubly or triply important in today’s hybrid workplace.
If the social ties that have bound individuals to companies in the past cannot be maintained under hybrid working conditions, all of the effort currently being invested in new office designs, new collaboration tools and new HR policies will have largely gone to waste. That money might be put to better use by increasing the size and sophistication of an organization’s recruiting team to deal with the historic levels of employee churn that will inevitably occur in the future.