Lately, a lot of organizations are blaming remote work for their productivity and culture issues.
Take Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse for example. In its 2022 annual report, SVB included remote work as a risk to its business — in part because of “productivity” — while Future Forum research found that remote workers report higher productivity when they work remotely vs from the office.
Other CEO’s cite “culture and collaboration” as the main reason why individuals need to come back to the office. But as we take a closer look, and talk to Future of Work experts like Phil Kirschner at Mckinsey, we come to find out, “Forcing remote and fully distributed work on almost everyone unexpectedly, and shining a spotlight on many parts of our collective work and workplace experience that were never that great to begin with.”
And as we read in this Axios article highlighting SVB’s blame of remote work for its collapse, Kevin Delaney, CEO of Charter, goes on to say, "There are well-managed organizations that operate remotely. And some companies have abandoned remote work or hybrid work models because they weren't well-run.”
Ah, the real problem…many organizations’ approach to adapting to new ways of working - like a flexible hybrid or remote strategy - has been lacking. Not because new approaches are not viable solutions to designing a future of work that works for everyone, but rather, because we haven’t undergone a major shift at scale in such a short amount of time since the Industrial Revolution. And like any new strategy, company, product - we’re still figuring out the kinks.
Over the past few years, many “innovative” companies have tried to approach the “Return to Office” by trying out things like desk-booking - a solution that, in my opinion, is on the decline. Why? Because most people come to the office not to be forced to book a desk, but to be with people. And while space is important as an enabler, the purpose should really be collaboration and socializing.
So why then, would we approach the “return to office” through a space-first approach like desk-booking or forcing a return to cubicles, rather than a people-first approach? Time to change our approach.
Another major problem we’ve seen arise with the new models of work, is that if not done right, there’s a huge risk for remote work and/or hybrid work to lead to isolation - currently the number one reason for employee churn.
Think about it, being in the same building as work besties 2-3 days per week means there are simply fewer opportunities and less time for people to connect and meet people outside of their inner circles or direct teams. Even if you’re at the same office, you still might not be aware of each other's schedules and/or whereabouts. This problem has caused silos to form, especially across teams, like never before.
It also doesn't help that over 40% of the global workforce reports being burnt out.
Organizations are missing the boat on onboarding. Only 12% of U.S. employees believe the company they work for has a satisfactory onboarding process (Gallup).
“Forcing remote and fully distributed work on almost everyone unexpectedly, and shining a spotlight on many parts of our collective work and workplace experience that were never that great to begin with.” - Phil Kirschner, McKinsey & Co.
New employees already find it extremely difficult to establish new relationships - let alone know how to engage with a remote-first or hybrid company culture. Because there aren’t many opportunities for serendipity to happen in a hybrid work environment, it’s easy for new hires to feel like every interaction is transactional - robotic even.
But there’s a lot of research to support more investment in onboarding. For example, people who have positive experiences in their first 90 days at a company are 10 times more likely to stay.
Part of the problem in flexible-first or hybrid environments is simply that many people don’t know where others are. If they did, it would be much easier for them to know who they can connect with, when, and where.
The hard truth is that, with the current approach - whether it’s a forced return to office, full-remote work or flexible hybrid - 79% of employees are likely to be disengaged, resigning or quiet-quitting (Gallup).
There’s a huge opportunity to retain by prioritizing socialization in the employee experience, focusing less on what the physical space is, and more on enabling human connection. But this relationship-building requires coordination and intention.
This means taking a more intentional approach to our collocated days. There’s nothing worse than commuting 2 hours (or more) only to show up to an empty office, or being at the office the same day as a teammate without knowing.
Visibility over each other’s agendas is the first crucial step to making sure that you show up on the right day, at the right time for a specific purpose or goal in mind.
As the office isn’t the default option, you need to plan meetings with people ahead of time. The same goes for onboarding: Will you have the new hires come in on a busy day to increase the odds they’ll encounter more serendipitous interactions? Will you arrange random coffee chats for them to get to know people from other departments?
The serendipity that once existed to help people discover each other is harder to come by, fueling isolation, poor onboarding, lack of connection. But it’s not a problem that can’t be solved.
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One way to help discovery is to make it easier for people to find each other. Not just on a day-to-day basis of where they’re working from, but - simply to find other people beyond their teammates that they’d want to know.
Whether it’s Black History Month, work-anniversaries, or promotions, there seems to be SO much to celebrate year-round. Moments of celebration and recognition are essential for people to feel seen, valued - and most importantly - that they belong.
It can get a bit difficult to keep track of it all, especially in a hybrid environment: imagine having a birthday celebration only for the person whose birthday it was not to show up because it wasn’t on their calendar.
It’s never been more important to have a strategy for celebrating moments virtually and in-person. But even more critical is ensuring that the right people are in the right place, and that they're aware of milestones and celebrations taking place. These moments could also serve as motivators to collocate for the day, have an informal coffee chat, or organize a serendipitous meetup after work.
Speaking of being social, many organizations in recent months, have disclosed that they're downsizing real estate portfolios and reinvesting those funds in employee experience and social opportunities.
However, this doesn’t mean everyone’s game. Many organizations are having challenges curating events that draw people to the office. As we always like to say at Café, “Free food doesn’t cut it,” and that’s because a lot of the time, the purpose is lacking. Or if there is a purpose, it’s not aligned with the people at the organization.
How do you align people and purpose? Use shared interests - unique “ingredients” as we like to call them - to organize events that resonate with people, and organic connections will flourish on their own. This is how you create connectivity in a hybrid environment: by building events and communities around the qualities and interests that make someone who they are.
It boosts belonging across the whole organization, between the different departments and can be completely team-agnostic.
Let’s be real, top-down event management still exists, and they can be fun. But happy hours, activities, and other events organized by employees themselves are gaining momentum, and they're often the most engaging and enjoyable experiences.
These organic meetups (like “headshots & happy hour,” casual lunches with your work besties, and post-work yoga sessions, etc.) give a real purpose for people to meet in real life, and connect through mutual interests, not just over work.
The shift to remote-first and hybrid work has created new challenges for organizations, including isolation, onboarding, and coordination. While some have blamed remote work for their issues, the real problem lies in a lack of effective adaptation to hybrid work.
Companies need to take a people-first approach, prioritizing socialization in the employee experience and enabling human connection. This requires coordination and intention, with visibility over each other's agendas, planning, and people discovery. With these solutions, companies can overcome the challenges of hybrid work and create a work environment that works for everyone.
Café partners with 10,000+ employees who’ve used the platform for at least 3 months saw a 39% increase in office attendance without mandates. We also saw an 80% engagement rate after 1 week, and as users saw the value, engagement was steady over time.
To read more about prioritizing human connection or hear from experts crafting the future of work, head to the Café blog.