A sudden shift to remote working during the pandemic has fundamentally shifted the power dynamic between employers and employees and forced everyone to consider how, and where, people work best.

Employees are enjoying increased flexibility and independence at work. A 2023 McKinsey report on hybrid working shows that office attendance is still 30% lower than it was before the pandemic, especially at larger companies. In the same report, 10% of respondents worldwide said they were likely to quit their jobs if required to work at the office every day and are willing to trade more than 20% of their pay to work their preferred number of days from home.

It’s an emotive topic – but remote working comes with its issues. A recent Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) poll showed that two-thirds of employees said their workplace friendships and relationships had suffered compared with pre-pandemic ways of working. Research from McKinsey shows 54% of employees desire a feeling of community and belonging in the workplace, and that collaboration and co-creation are 70% of why people stay with an organisation. Neither of these things are entirely possible remotely.

This data polarisation indicates that hybrid working is the way forwards – but striking a balance is hard. It may be the best of both worlds, but how can businesses make sure hybrid working actually works? As return to office conversations ramp up, businesses need to rethink their approach to office working to encourage people to come together again.

What are you saying, really?

Years of ‘remote first’ then ‘back to office’ then ‘somewhere in between’ have created cynicism and confusion, and business backtracking has led to hybrid working messaging being dismissed or not reflecting the wider company mood.

To counteract this, leaders must take time to determine what hybrid working could, and should, look like, and be prepared to be adaptable, challenging traditional ways of working. This begins and ends with communication. Give people the opportunity to share their opinions through surveys, research and focus groups. Consider this when identifying hybrid working expectations and communicate with context and clarity, keeping hybrid working a regular part of the ongoing conversation.

Communications must meet people where they are, and not ignore concerns. Reassure employees that more time in the office doesn’t mean they lose the benefits of remote working. Be open and honest about challenges and opportunities and communicate these in a real and human way.

Leading by example

People saw leaders in a more ‘real’ way throughout the pandemic, with kids, dogs and delivery boxes making regular appearances on calls. In this way, remote working created authenticity, but it also built barriers to everyday leadership, connection, and development.

In Harvard Business Review research, 70% of leaders say that ensuring cohesion and social connections within teams has been a moderate to major challenge due to the shift to hybrid. The challenge is well known, but the McKinsey 2023 report on hybrid working shows that leadership are part of the sizable and influential group of office workers who strongly prefer to continue working remotely. There’s a disconnect here – particularly as Gen Z and Millennial workers see the office as an opportunity to build relationships with leadership and managers – and leaders must be more present in order to join the dots.

Leaders being visible in offices supports teams and encourages more other people into offices. Reducing calls, meetings and distractions in the office means leaders can be more present and gives them the chance to engage with teams organically, and engineer opportunities for team meetings, 1-1s and general business updates. It has a benefit for leaders too – remote working compounds the need for meetings or calls, whereas being in office can help to gather information faster and be able to make quicker, slicker decisions.

Businesses must set clear expectations on the role that leaders play and encourage them to see the office as a collaboration space. Regular management meetings, creating manager-only communications channels or building hybrid working training are ways to support leaders to become hybrid working influencers.

Better spaces, more faces

Physical workplaces must adapt to the new working world. Often, changes are driven by real estate, but companies must be prepared to map and redesign their offices around employee experience. This begins by considering the different roles and responsibilities in the team, mapping out the ideal employee experience, and addressing different working styles so that co-creation and focused working are just as achievable in the office as when working remotely.

Spaces should feel authentic to the employee experience and reflect company values, which can be done through the use of environmental branding design – an often overlooked communication tool.
A hot desk plan won’t do it – offices need meeting rooms and breakout spaces for collaboration as well as spaces for contemplative, focused working. And, crucially, these areas need to be fit for purpose with the right equipment. Companies ramped-up remote working technology the world over to maintain continuity throughout Covid and now the challenge is to get the technology in the office up to speed.

A one size fits all approach won’t work with office tech – invest in what people need, whether it’s better cameras or audio in meeting rooms, improved headphones for focused spaces, interactive whiteboards or tools to make hybrid presentations more inclusive. One of our larger financial clients is thinking long-term with this, completely revolutionising their office space and investing in technology to create spaces people want to be in, which actively help them at work.

Social spaces are a must in offices too. Harvard Business Review also published research stating that 84% of employees would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with co-workers, so create places for people to catch up and connect, to rebuild a sense of community.

Learning and development

Make training and development an everyday part of the working week, with skills sharing sessions, lunch and learns or external training sessions. These shouldn’t exclude people working remotely, but really provide a pull for people to come into the office.

Promote the benefits of organic and ad-hoc development in offices too. Being able to watch how different people handle conversations, or getting involved with different meetings can support junior team members to build those ‘softer’ work skills.

Office days are a great opportunity for other team building and networking – often an overlooked aspect of development which allows people to form strong relationships. Harvard Business Review research shows that 74% of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their “work friends” were there, and 73% if they knew their direct team members would be there. Create opportunities for people to gather, whether that’s lunchtime fitness classes or fun activities like free pizza Fridays. These quick wins are just another reason for people to shake up their working routines and head into the office.

Do wellbeing, well

According to a 2022 McKinsey survey, four in five HR leaders report that mental health and well-being is a top priority for their organisation.

The wellbeing benefits of working at home, of which there are many, have been widely praised, but there are downsides too – isolation, blurred barriers between work and home and a diminished sense of community. Harvard Business Review reports that 85% of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.

Internal wellbeing programmes or campaigns highlight the mental and physical benefits of hybrid working, while promoting business values and behaviours. Some companies are encouraging office working by rewarding people for the number of steps done in the day, or championing step challenges across different offices to build a sense of community. In the office, you’re likely to move more, there’s a more of a reason to step away from your desk and give your brain a break and more chance for in-person interactions, to counteract the feeling of isolation.

Financial wellbeing must factor into these campaigns too – as heading into offices comes with a price tag. Address the financial cost of commuting head on with benefits like travel cards, cycle to work scheme, car shares etc. You can also counteract the costs by offering free or subsidised meals or snacks.

Pets and people

According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, 3.2 million households in the UK got a pet during the pandemic. These furry friends made regular appearances on virtual calls and meetings. Now that ways of working are evolving and office working is on the rise, people may be concerned about how they balance their responsibilities.

While having a pet doesn’t exclude anyone from working in the office (and separation anxiety from pets just doesn’t cut it) initiatives like pet friendly days are another way for businesses to recognise things are not exactly as they were before and are willing to adapt in order to support this.

This is linked to something much bigger – the need for flexibility not just around working locations but in the traditional workday structure. Flexible, reduced or compressed hours, and better benefits to support parents, caregivers and people generally all speak to this. With hybrid on the brain, businesses should take the opportunity to review this in a more holistic way and think about the wider employee experience, to get people back into offices and make sure that the workforce is engaged across every location and vocation.

Andy Holt, Definition
MD of Employee Engagement & Experience at Definition | + posts

Andy Holt is the MD of Engagement and employee experience at Definition. Andy’s team has won over 230 awards. Not bad, eh? Not surprisingly, over the last 30 years, he’s helped some of the best businesses around the world with their internal communications conundrums. For seven years he was an Institute of Internal Communications board member and North Region Director, where he’s still a fellow member.