The pandemic has undoubtedly eroded our social structures, bonds, and supports systems. After more than a year of staying safe at home, some employees may want to avoid the office out of fear or anxiety—but will that set them up for future success?
While hybrid work is here to stay (and that’s a good thing), let’s make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in the opposite direction, closing out key opportunities for in-person relationships. Employers have a responsibility to make this a priority if they want their workforces to thrive in the coming post-pandemic months and years.
Work is a key source of social interaction. For many people, workplaces and workforces fill the role of social community, even when their main reason to work is to earn a livelihood. While the work-from-home experiment has been a boon for many, it’s time for employers to confront its long-term effects on those who don’t have social outlets outside work.
Perhaps surprisingly, people place a great deal of trust in business as an institution that can improve society. When people don’t trust government, media, and NGOs to solve societal problems, they expect business to step in and fill the void. These high expectations have only risen during the pandemic.
The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that these expectations bring companies “new demands to focus on societal engagement with the same rigor, thoughtfulness, and energy used to deliver on profits.” This extends to their workplaces as a crucial source of social engagement. Employers must embrace this role and lead through these uncertain, transitional times, precisely because they have that broader societal trust.
Trusting employees to know how and where they best get work done will help foster a positive organizational culture, even amidst concerns about COVID-19 resurgences and delays to post-pandemic plans.
Employers also have to be aware of the social risks of creating work models that are too fluid.
Right now, employers are focusing on how to transition into a world where hybrid work is the norm. This is no small task. But the bigger task for employers might be fulfilling their duty to facilitate healthy social engagement and support those who need a hand finding their way back to in-person interaction—even when they don’t ask for it.
Going against the grain of remote work to indicate a preference for in-person work (of some kind) or a desire to connect with colleagues beyond a screen will become more difficult if it is seen as infringing on other people’s newfound flexibility.
Some managers are beginning to worry that they might be branded as unfair or overly demanding if they have their teams come into the office at all, even when it falls squarely within the parameters of their new hybrid model. The new vaccination policies being announced by companies might also give managers worried about rocking the boat another reason to think it’s simply easier to not bring employees back together.
This is where leaders and managers must stop tiptoeing around the new role they have within hybrid work models. They need to have open conversations with their employees. They need to recognize that work flexibility will improve organizational culture. And sometimes they might need to insist members of their teams meet in person—at the office, at a coffee shop, or even for a walk outside. This is also part of what it means to be flexible.
It’s likely that the work models being announced now will require tweaking in the future. When leaders engage a workforce in the planning process and give clear guidance during times of uncertainty, modifications that are made later will not be begrudged.
What’s true today for work conditions might not be true next quarter or next year. But the human need for social engagement will always exist.
Bringing people together in ways that provide social structure, bonds, and support has never been more important, and doing so will be essential to determining—collectively and fairly—what works best for the future of work.
With contributions from Lisa Taylor, Emree Siaroff, and Taryn Blanchard.