Want People to Return to the Office? Focus on Relationships.

Offer employees connections they cannot get virtually.

Published on Apr. 19, 2023
Want People to Return to the Office? Focus on Relationships.
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Brand Studio Logo

Office peacocking. Quiet quitting. Quiet hiring.

These are just a few buzzwords seeking to define what, exactly, is happening in the workplace right now. Everyone wants to stabilize the daily grind in light of the dramatic shifts that have occurred since the start of the pandemic, but how can that be done? 

7 Things Done Better in Person

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Mentoring
  3. Relationship building
  4. Developing soft skills
  5. Collaboration
  6. Working on major projects
  7. Difficult conversations

Consider how important being social is to humans: We are a species that thrives, creates and flourishes when we allow ourselves to be interdependent. So much so that it’s been argued that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should be reversed to reflect that socialization is more important to us than food. 

At the core of finding a way to bring colleagues back together in person — three years after we stopped wearing hard pants on a daily basis and discovered how much our partner might use the phrase “circle back” — is understanding why, exactly, being in person matters.

It’s about building relationships, interacting in a person-to-person way and building team dynamics that help a business, and individuals, succeed. 

We’ve adapted quickly to technologies like direct messaging and videoconferencing, relying on them to communicate quickly and efficiently with colleagues. These technologies have made it possible to work wherever and whenever we want. Solutions like adding new couches or throwing a pizza party don’t seem to hold a candle to that freedom to work solo and to be disconnected.   

If returning to the office is important to a company, and 66 percent of employers believe that it is, then the company needs to step back from the messaging and focus on why being in person matters: It’s about building relationships, interacting in a person-to-person way and building the team dynamics that help a business, and individuals, succeed. 

While technology is convenient, a successful workplace in the post-Covid will need to combine the quickly adapted technology and demands for flexibility with meaningful in-office activities and practices that inspire workers to connect. 

Read More About Office LifeThe 4-Day Work Week Could Actually Happen


Engage in Real Conversations

Does this sound like ridiculous advice? It might. But think about the adoption of Slack, text, Gchat and Zoom into daily interactions and how those tools replaced picking up the phone or walking over to someone’s desk to engage in conversations that are both serious and silly.

Yes, technology is easier and faster, but does it add value to daily interactions? Can you and your colleagues honestly say that effective mentorship or brainstorming has taken place over Slack? Is reading “LOL” as delightful as hearing someone laugh at your pithy observation in person? 

One of the things we all lost in the pandemic was the very natural way that we invest in building relationships with colleagues on a day-to-day basis. One survey showed that 57 percent of people say having a best friend in the workplace makes work more enjoyable, and more than 20 percent felt both more productive and more creative when working with friends. 

Finding ways to encourage both ad hoc and organized interactions will meaningfully support building stronger relationships amongst colleagues. When you are in person, invite colleagues to grab a cup of coffee between meetings or to hang out on that new couch and chat about the latest Netflix binge or the new Taylor Swift album. The Instagram scrolling can wait.  


Limit Back-and-Forths

Has an email exchange ever caused you to yell at your monitor, demanding that the person behind the address on the screen understand what it is you are trying to say? 

The shortness of communication via technology can cause us to think that the person on the other end might be rude, or missing the point, or some combination of those qualities. But the truth is, we’re not all experts at communicating or understanding the messages that are put in front of us.

And if, after two back-and-forths, you or the person on the other end aren’t getting it, it’s time to pick up the phone, get on a hangout or set up a huddle and speak directly and have a real conversation. You can open with, “I don’t think I understand what you are asking for.” Or, “I wanted to check in since that last email seemed short.”  

A voice-to-voice conversation can reveal that someone’s email style is completely different from their personality. Or that you didn’t communicate your idea clearly, leading to the other person’s confusion. You might find out that a colleague is having a terrible day and that you can help cheer them up. 

Interacting voice-to-voice is critical to developing EQ and to understanding and hearing your colleagues. 

Read More About Office LifeThe 3 Biggest Struggles of the Remote Worker — And How to Fix Them


Use Time Effectively

Despite their desire for hybrid workplaces, 87 percent of workers polled in a recent survey think the office is critical for collaboration. 

So while it’s unlikely that any business can go back to five days, 40 hours a week in office immediately, employees almost universally recognize the value of working in-person at least some of the time. Because of this, it’s important to use that in-office time wisely. 

What is the plan for that day? What will have the most impact, and what cannot be replicated over Zoom or Slack? Don’t leave it to chance. Have an itinerary, whether it is for office-wide activities or for you as an employee. 

In-person time is a great opportunity for investing in relationship building, helping colleagues develop soft skills and collaboration, whether that’s in-person presentations, conducting difficult conversations or iterating on major projects. 

Imagine how many issues could be avoided through human, 1-on-1 conversations.

It’s also important to enrich your 1-on-1 relationships with colleagues and any direct reports. According to research from Gallup, 50 percent of employees leave their companies because of their boss, and managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement. When you consider the communication issues that crop up as a result of being all virtual, and cutting communication to exist primarily electronically, imagine how many issues could be avoided through human, 1-on-1 conversations.  

Also, take advantage of the opportunity to share space with each other. Schedule time for everyone to have lunch together or plan a post-work happy hour when you know everyone will be on site. 

So definitely: Buy that new coffee maker. Add a conversation pit. Throw that pizza party. But if workers can’t feel a sense of belonging in the workplace and among each other, that pizza’s not going to eat itself.  

Hiring Now
Fintech • Information Technology • Financial Services