While people around the world have returned to restaurants, concerts, and travel, there is one place many of them don’t go: the office. Many business leaders who longed for, demanded, or expected a five-day-a-week and nine-to-five return-to-office (RTO) have been disappointed and, in some cases, even had to reverse the mandates.
In today’s hybrid world, “work” is increasingly something people do, not a place they go. There’s no going back to 2019, so it’s time to rethink the role of the office, for both workers and businesses.
Empowered and energized employees drive competitive advantage. But until now, business leaders have had more questions than answers about exactly how the office can best support and engage its people in a hybrid world. Our latest research at Microsoft reveals that the answer may lie in what I believe should be the focus of every leader: reconnecting employees.
The value of the office is in the people, not in the place
There is an absolutely strong desire among business decision makers (BDMs) to get people back to the office. data from our last Microsoft Job Trends Index research shows that 82% of BDMs say returning to the office in person is a concern. Yet two years of no commute time and the ability to more effectively manage work-life balance means employees are looking for a compelling reason to return to the office, and 73% of them says you need a better reason than the company’s expectations. So the question is, what it is a compelling reason to come to the office?
It’s simple: people care about people.
When asked what would motivate them to come to the office, employees had a strong response: social time with co-workers:
- 85% of employees would be motivated to go to the office to rebuild team bonds.
- 84% of employees would be motivated to go to the office if they could socialize with their co-workers.
- 74% of employees would go to the office more often if they knew their “friends from work” were there.
- 73% of employees would go to the office more often if they knew their direct team members would be there.
I felt that power of connection firsthand on a trip to the UK and Germany this spring, my first business trip since the pandemic began. As I met with local employees, clients, creators, and students over the course of the week, I was blown away by the energy I felt, reminded that it wasn’t the physical office that I missed, it was the people. a the office.
The data shows that I am not the only one who feels this way. With roughly half of employees saying their relationships outside of their immediate work group have frayed and more than 40% reporting feeling disconnected from their company in general, ensuring people have the opportunity to reconnect will be crucial in next year. And let’s not forget the huge cohort of people who started or changed jobs during the pandemic lockdown. For them, every face is new.
Leaders acknowledge how difficult it can be to build connections, with nearly 70% saying that ensuring cohesiveness and social connections within teams has been a moderate to significant challenge due to the move to hybrid. But now they must recognize their importance and take action, or risk losing the social capital that keeps businesses running.
Leaders must intentionally use the office to rebuild social capital—the value workers derive from their networks, such as gaining new ideas and inspiration, being able to ask for help or advice, or finding new opportunities for professional growth. Social capital is not nice to have; it is crucial so that employees can do their best work and organizations can continue to innovate. Therefore, setting the stage for meaningful connection at all levels must be at the core of every organization’s RTO plans.
This begins by showing employees that coming to the office satisfies more than an arbitrary desire to see “bodies in seats.” Leaders must prioritize creating and rebuilding connections between people to drive creativity, teamwork, and strong support systems to help them meet challenges. Here are three ways to do it.
Get rid of busy work
Make connection the top priority for in-person time. Nobody wants to go to the office just to spend the day on video calls and responding to emails and pings. But that’s what could happen, unless leaders and managers intentionally create both the space and permission for employees to spend that time reconnecting.
Understand that this in-person socializing isn’t taking away from productivity—it’s driving innovation, psychological safety, retention, and more. To encourage and protect connection time, encourage employees and teams to set norms around expected response times while in the office so that being there doesn’t become a blur of overlapping deadlines. And to ease backlog anxiety, consider instituting days off from team meetings or encourage employees to set aside and protect focus time so people know they can catch up later. For example, consider Fridays without meetings: Recharged from in-person time earlier in the week, employees get uninterrupted focus time and can spend the day in “do it” mode.
Create new rituals in person
To support rebuilding social capital and team bonds, leaders must design experiences that bring people together in new ways. Create intentional opportunities for connection, such as an extended lunch at a nearby popular restaurant to bring local employees into the office, or hold quarterly “team weeks” that bring local and remote employees together onsite for a series of workshops diaries.
Younger employees are especially interested in using office time as a way to establish themselves as part of their workplace community and feel more connected to their co-workers. To a greater extent than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts, Gen Z and Millennial workers see the office as an opportunity to build relationships with senior leadership and their direct managers. But just as importantly, 78% of them said they are particularly motivated to work in person by seeing their work friends.
So, intentionally build in additional in-person connection time when you onboard new employees. And for early-career employees, think about creating focused events to help them build their networks. Last month, I had the opportunity to do both when I spoke with our new hires at Microsoft Marketing College as part of their week-long onboarding program. And although the goal was to inspire to themI walked away feeling inspired, energized and, yes, connected.
Whatever you do, do it authentically.
In our most recent Workplace Trends Index, 85% of employees ranked authenticity as the number one quality a manager can have to help them do their best work. The good news is that 83% of business decision-makers say it’s important for their senior leadership to present themselves authentically, so the level of awareness is relatively high overall.
So what does authenticity look like in practice? It starts at the top, setting the tone for an authentic culture where open, genuine and empathetic connections can happen. You will need to lead by example, using an authentic voice that communicates openness, inclusion and that you are there to help people build their social capital. We ask a lot of people at Microsoft to dedicate themselves completely to work, and that’s only possible when they have psychological safety, especially for employees who come from underrepresented groups and may not see themselves in the people who care about them. surround. As a leader, I always ask myself how I can create a culture and work environment where every employee feels safe to connect on a deeper level, beyond transactional relationships.
Authentic culture and communication must transcend physical space, as not all employees will be in the office every day or even every month or quarter, depending on where they live. Increasing the surface area for connection is especially crucial to ensure we don’t lose ground on inclusion; as employees from underrepresented groups are more likely to I prefer remote workleaders must ensure that their communications reach All employees, wherever they work. Embracing multimedia formats like podcasts or interacting on internal forums creates an ongoing conversation and two-way dialogue, helping people feel connected, informed, and engaged. For example, I always get more questions than I can answer in the live Q&A portion of my hands. But the conversation doesn’t have to end when the event ends; instead, my leadership team and I follow up on unanswered employee questions on our Microsoft Marketing forum, keeping the discussion and information flowing.
We are still learning how to make hybrid work properly. From the research, it’s clear that putting people at the center by fostering connection among employees is key to the new role of the office.