Don’t mandate workers back to the office, invite them to enjoy the power of community

Originally published in the Globe & Mail March 10, 2023

“If you’re organizing your birthday party, you would never say to friends that it’s mandatory to show up. … People would think, ah, this is going to be so boring!” Gustavo Razzetti, author of Remote Not Distant, pointed out in our recent foHRsight podcast discussion.

Why, then, do we feel the need to mandate people to return to the office or to attend meetings when they don’t need to?

As we continue to hear of organizations, like Amazon recently did, mandating employees back to the office, the divide becomes even greater between “us” and “them” – the people versus leadership – a power struggle more than a debate regarding work location and productivity.

This divide, compounded by an already weary work force, plagued by layoffs and burnout, has inspired trends like quiet quitting, career cushioning and the latest, resenteeism (not a typo with a missing “p” – it is the trend of staying in a job, resentfully, because of the fear of economic uncertainty).

Instead, consider inviting your team members to the office. Invite contributors to participate in the meeting. Think about your organization as a community. As Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, cautions in a recent article, we are missing the value of community in creating our remote working routines: strong ties are weakening and weak ties (such as casual acquaintances) are missing.

For example, Glint’s 2022 research showed 35 per cent of employees working in a hybrid model and 25 per cent of those working fully remotely feel less connected to their colleagues than they did in 2021. And teams are struggling, needing to rebuild trust after years of exclusively two-dimensional communication and a lack of what Ms. Davey describes as “mutual knowledge” (context for other people’s behaviour that helps us to interpret our teammates’ actions). So, how do we create a sense of community for our teams in a hybrid model, with an invitation to be a part of something bigger, rather than with boring and disengaging mandates?

Until recently, we thought of communities mostly as in-person forums where people with a common interest or mission come together to connect. The pandemic gave way to thinking about communities differently, with the addition of digital and asynchronous connection, which enabled us to overcome geographical barriers and to rely less on in-person and synchronous modes of collaboration. Now with the best of both worlds at our disposal – most have returned to being comfortable with in-person interactions and technology has evolved to support digital connection in a meaningful way – we can be more deliberate about creating community within our organizations that supports culture and purpose.

If we think about our organizations as communities, comprised of subcommunities, consider the following for better engagement and inclusion:

Community is about growth

“People come together not just to be the same version of themselves, but because they see a new world together, they want to learn something together,” Tatiana Figueiredo, a community building expert, shared in our recent podcast discussion. “This is important to keep in mind in organizations because individuals’ growth is in service of organizational growth” if they feel a strong sense of connection to the organization’s purpose.

Formal and informal communities are equally important in building connection and belonging

Ms. Figueiredo suggests bringing people together, deliberately, based on different aspects of identity can create better connection and community. This can be done as simply as creating a community of practice, for example, for all first-time people leaders, through a Slack or Teams channel, or in a more structured way through employee resource groups like a women’s interest network.

Community experiences happen at three levels

Ms. Figueiredo breaks connections down into big groups (for example, chief executive officer messages, company retreats), small groups (for example, cross-functional projects, teams, employee resource groups) and one-to-one (for example, mentoring relationships). She stresses the importance of one-to-one relationships outside of one’s immediate team in fostering a sense of belonging. She also advises that many organizations don’t harness the power of small group connections enough, relying too heavily on town hall meetings and other big group connections.

Treating our organizations as communities shifts our mindset from mandating to inviting; from dictating to empowering; from transactional to relational. It can foster a deeper sense of belonging as more people are connected to one another, and therefore to the company, which can only lead to higher engagement and retention. In a hybrid context, prioritizing connection on in-office days is key – exchanging human energy is best done in-person, so save other tasks, like information-sharing, for digital or asynchronous time.