By Design: The better way to bring employees back to the workplace

After two years of pandemic isolation, companies across America are trying to coax their employees back to the office, touting the benefits of “connection” and “collaboration.”

But workers are resisting the push and all the drawbacks that come with it, like long commutes and expensive child care. More than half of U.S. workers want more flexibility in their schedules post pandemic, and 30% say they would quit if their employers require them to return to the office full-time, according to a study by McKinsey.

That’s the tough reality managers are dealing with as they navigate the return.

And, besides, simply forcing people to come to an office won’t inspire connection or collaboration, says Raw Signal Group, a business management consultancy. What managers really need to do is intentionally design the return so employees get the most out of their time.

The Art of the Gathering

One way to design the comeback would be to create specific “gatherings” that bring employees together in informal ways, says Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering.

Togetherness has tangible benefits. Researchers at the University of Michigan found when people spent more time interacting with others—talking, socializing and connecting—they displayed improved mental function.

Team building is nothing new, but with teams now far-flung, bringing employees together to spark creativity and improve productivity will take a different kind of effort.

The hybrid work schedule, where employees might spend half the week in the office and half at home, has become the model du jour.  And that’s one reason that designing the return is so tricky. Promoting collaboration won’t be effective if schedules aren’t coordinated.

For example, an important meeting should happen when all the key players are present. Having some team members phoning in while others have schlepped into the office is just going to cause resentment.

 “If the right people aren’t coming into the office on the same day, that’s a design problem” that needs to be tackled, Raw Signal points out.

We’ve all spent enough time on Zoom. So let’s not bring employees back to work to have them heading into separate rooms for more Zoom calls. Make their efforts to get to the office worthwhile by ensuring meaningful physical interaction that can foster new ideas and growth.

Who are you?

Another dubious side effect of virtual work has been the loss of familiarity. People just don’t know each other anymore. 

As workers return, many of them have never met face-to-face. And when it comes to connecting, familiarity is a big factor, Raw Signal points out. Sure, it would be great if folks would spontaneously collaborate once they’re back in the office, but that’s less likely post pandemic, when many workers don’t recognize the colleagues they’re passing in the hallways.

So just hauling people back and hoping that they’ll bond won’t cut it. Encouraging interaction after two years of virtual work requires careful planning.

Post-pandemic team building

That’s where the art of the gathering can make a difference. In a recent newsletter, Parker describes it as a “collective mechanism,” or structure that helps a group coordinate in relevant and appropriate ways.

“Helpful collective mechanisms can reduce inequity, exclusion, and individual coordinating time,” Parker writes. It sounds complex, but the best ones are actually simple.

Collective coffee breaks 

Cultures around the world from India to Sweden “build collective mechanisms into the workday,” Parker writes. It could be as simple as a designated afternoon coffee break, such as a Swedish Fika, that gives employees time to gather and chat – about anything but work.

When the author lived in India, her workplace held a regular afternoon tea break “where everyone would hit pause, hang out in the canteen, and drink tea together.”

The point is providing “the social permission (and yes, the social pressure) to come together at the same time and the same place and hang,” Parker says.

Some Swedish companies actually add a clause to contracts stating that employees are entitled to fika breaks, which isn’t just altruistic – these scheduled gatherings are known to promote well-being and productivity.

The bottom line 

To sum up, as companies ramp up their back-to-work plans, it’s crucial to focus on more than office structure and hygiene. Designing the right kind of environment that promotes connection and collaboration can set your employees up for success. And that’s the whole point of coming back in the first place.