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Community is alive and well in the hybrid workplace
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Community is alive and well in the hybrid workplace

Like anything worthwhile, it takes work, lots of flexibility and a whole lot of trial and error.

In November of last year, I started a new position at a company that creates great hybrid workplaces. Our San Francisco office has been open since last June, and our community is growing and thriving as we get to know each other. 30% are new hires like me.

We operate on two principles: 1) making workspaces where people feel safe and comfortable and 2) the belief that people do their best work together and in person. Bringing people together helps us flex our community-building skills. Plus, there’s power in gathering at the office a few times a week to collaborate, share and problem-solve.

But thanks to omicron, everything old is new again. We’re all experiencing the anxiety and frustration of having to mask up again and distance ourselves from friends and family. Many who’ve felt comfortable going into the office before this latest variant are choosing to stay at home. And experts expect this cyclical fluctuation of COVID-19 to continue.

A former colleague recently asked how I help my people cope. How do I nurture community and culture-building with COVID-19 always changing and disrupting plans?

Honestly, it’s not easy. It takes determination and trial and error. And most importantly, learning from those errors. Three things I stress with my people team: first, flexibility; second, a business plus mentality; and third, work-life blend.

Flexibility is the golden rule

In December, we asked office workers across the country how their companies could do better during this pandemic. What would empower them as employees? Which benefits, if any, would impact whether they stay or go?

The results show that the greatest desire of employees isn’t a defined mission or greater investments in career growth. Most (63%) want more flexibility. Nearly half agree that the freedom to split time between the workplace and home and the ability to choose which days to come in are extremely important, right up there with traditional work benefits like matching 401k plans or paid time off.

The concept of flex work isn’t new, but its widespread adoption is. Flex work helps all of us find some semblance of control in the middle of an uncontrollable pandemic. Giving options makes people happier and less stressed. This leads to a greater desire to participate, which helps us build our communities and culture.

At Envoy, we’re all about hybrid and flexible work, though we also realize the need to be flexible within our flexibility based on what’s happening with the virus. For example, we recently reassessed and relaxed a two-day per week in-office policy because of the omicron surge. Health and safety come first.

Take time for small talk

Business plus small talk is a concept I’ve started to push from the top down because socializing helps us cope. Pre-pandemic, it was easier to engage and connect on a personal level when we worked in the office. It was organic. We spent time chatting and hearing the latest from our colleagues — their vacation to Hawaii or how their eldest is off to college.

But in isolation for nearly two years, we’ve lost a sense of community, cut off from extended family, friends and work life. And we’re out of practice when it comes to chit-chat and watercooler talk because it’s harder to do over Zoom. On Zoom, we tend to get down to the business of getting work done.

Don’t mistake me: doing business is a priority, but our interactions shouldn't be just about work or even productivity. Taking a few minutes to ask your co-workers about how things are going, however brief, matters. Why? Because it’s how we’re built. We remember those who’ve shared and whom we’ve shared with. Touchpoints help us develop rapport, which builds stronger relationships that help us do good cross-functional work.

Find work-life blend

Work-life balance assumes everything should be equal. It never is. When I was at Facebook, there were days I had a deadline, which meant I might not make dinner with my boys. But I also never missed that soccer game at three in the afternoon. Work-life blend is about the in-the-moment trade-offs and choices we all have to make everyday. Does work come first in this moment, or is it family? Do I go into the office on Tuesday and Thursday so I’m free to pick up the kids the rest of the week? My job is to help people recognize these choices, the potential trade-offs, and the flexibility they may already have, especially now.

If you build it…

Finally, I’m helping to build great workplaces that people love. This is arguably one of the most important ways to help people get through this pandemic. I have confidence in the physical workplace for many reasons. One of the most compelling is that people crave it, and will continue to gravitate to it. If given the choice, 66% of office workers would choose to work mostly in-office. Only 12% would prefer to work remotely all of the time. In addition, 48% say impromptu run-ins and actual face time with colleagues is what excites them when thinking about going into the office. 47% just want to get out of the house! I can relate.

Like I said earlier, nurturing community and building culture takes determination and trial and error. The process will change and evolve over time, especially in today's uncertain world. But one thing is certain: companies that are working on this and making it a priority will do well.