Working Conversations Episode 170:

Building Community in the Hybrid Work Environment


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Ever feel like you're missing out on the office buzz while working from home?

Missing the camaraderie of a fully in-person office?

Feeling disconnected in your hybrid workplace?

Or perhaps, you’re struggling to build meaningful connections with your remote colleagues.

You're not alone. Many of us are grappling with the challenge of building meaningful connections in a hybrid workplace.

In this episode of the Working Conversations podcast, I share practical strategies to foster a sense of community, even when your team is scattered between home and office.

I've heard from many of you about the difficulties of maintaining engagement and fostering collaboration when part of the team is remote and the other part is in the office. The lack of spontaneous interactions, feeling out of the loop, and the challenge of building rapport over video calls can be tough. But there are ways to bridge this gap and create a vibrant, cohesive workplace.

In this episode I dive into practical strategies like forming shared interest groups, virtual coffee breaks, and publishing in-office days. Intentional efforts are key. I discuss how peer recognition programs, where colleagues can give shoutouts for good work, and digital bulletin boards for sharing team news and updates can bridge the gap between remote and in-office employees. These tools not only boost morale but also foster a sense of belonging.

Whether you're an individual contributor or a manager, this episode offers actionable steps to cultivate a thriving hybrid workplace. By focusing on these strategies, you can enhance collaboration, boost innovation, and support the overall well-being of your team.

Tune in to discover practical tips and insights on building a supportive and engaging hybrid work environment. Let’s transform our workplaces into thriving communities together!

Listen and catch the full episode here or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also watch it and replay it on my YouTube channel, JanelAndersonPhD.

If you’ve found this episode helpful, spread the word! Share this podcast episode with a friend whom you might think needs to hear this. Don’t forget to leave a review and 5-star rating, it would mean the world to me.


Episode 159: Why You Need a Work BFF



Hello and welcome to another episode of the working conversations podcast where we talk all things leadership, business, communication and trends in organizational life. I'm your host, Dr Janel Anderson.

Imagine this walking into your office and you're greeted by the familiar buzz of conversations, the laughter of your colleagues sharing a joke, and the spontaneous brainstorming sessions that spark innovation. Now imagine trying to recreate that vibrant sense of community when half your team is working from their homes scattered across the country.

In today's hybrid work environment, building and maintaining a connected, engaged community can feel like a daunting challenge. But fear not. With the right strategies, you can bridge the gap between remote and in office employees fostering a cohesive and dynamic workplace culture. Are you ready to learn how? Well, let's dive into the top tips and tricks for creating a thriving community in your hybrid workplace.

Now, communities itself is defined as a group of people who have something in common. Well, of course, all the employees who work for your company or work in your department do have that in common. But that's not always enough. There are lots of other factors that can foster community, having similar families, or geography values, or maybe being in a similar life stage, like having aging parents or having young children or having no children.

It could also be an overlapping interest, passion or something in your professional life that, again, builds that sense of communality. Now, strong communities are essential because they deliver the social connection and a sense of belonging that we also need.

If you've heard my episode on loneliness and why you need a work best friend, you'll know how important this is. If you haven't, you're going to want to go check out that episode. It was episode 159 why you need a work BFF, and we'll link that up in the show notes.

Participating in a community is critical as an ingredient to enjoying a fulfilling life and to have a fulfilling work life. As much as you can you need community at work too. For community to be successful, individuals need to also feel a sense of shared trust and connection caring for one another, if you will.

Communities are about relationships with others and that feeling of connectedness that comes when we get to know each other. Now in today's rapidly evolving work environment, the concept of community within the workplace has never been more crucial. A strong sense of community amongst employees fosters a supportive and collaborative atmosphere, one where people feel valued and connected to each other, and that leads to more engagement.

Now, this sense of belonging can significantly impact employee morale, productivity and overall job satisfaction, the kinds of topics we talk about regularly here on working conversations, when employees feel part of a community, they're more likely to collaborate effectively, share knowledge and support each other, and of course, leave their job less frequently, so less turnover. All of that is going to lead to enhanced innovation, problem solving capabilities and cost savings within the organization. So it's really, really important.

Now it is challenging to build community in the hybrid workplace, and more and more this has been coming up in trainings that I'm delivering and in questions from audiences when I'm giving keynotes. So I thought it deserved its own episode.

I always have a handful of ideas in my back pocket, and today I'm going to give you seven of those of my best ideas on building that community in a hybrid workplace. But let's look at why it's so challenging to do in the first place.

Now, hybrid work, which combines both remote work and in office work, presents some unique well, let's just call them obstacles that can absolutely hinder the natural interactions and those spontaneous connections that typically occur in that traditional office setting. And some of us don't remember being in that traditional office setting, because it's been such a long time, and some the younger amongst the generations have not ever experienced that sense of community that comes when all of their coworkers are in the office.

So here are a few reasons why it's harder to cultivate community in a hybrid workplace. First of all, the physical separation when some employees are in this place and some employees are in that place and some employees are together in the office, the physical distance can create a certain sense of isolation. So without those regular face to face interactions, it's difficult for coworkers to really form and strengthen those personal connections with their colleagues.

Secondly, there are always going to be communication gaps. So hybrid work can lead to different silos, where in office, employees have more frequent interactions, and then the ones who are working from home or working from regional offices in different parts of the country or even different parts of the world feel well less they don't have as much interaction, and they don't feel as connected in their interactions.

And so this can result in employees who are in those remote roles feeling left out or less informed than the about team dynamics and so forth, compared to their colleagues who are in the office either all the time or at least more regularly. Different work schedules also make a difference.

So in a hybrid model, employees often have varied work schedules, and that could be based on time zone differences if they're in different parts of the country or different parts of the world, and they might just be in the office on alternate days. So this lack of synchronization of their schedule can make it challenging to coordinate the kinds of interactions that lead to building community, the team, building the social interaction, the hellos and the good mornings in the hallway, even, and so that can get in the way.

And then, of course, there is the technology, the technology that so connects us also can create fractures and fissures, while, of course, it facilitates remote work, it creates challenges. So technical issues varying from different levels of digital proficiency to the impersonal nature sometimes of communicating through community computer communicating through computerized platforms.

Well, all of that can impede the development of strong interpersonal relationships. And then there is a lack of spontaneity. So those kinds of spontaneous interactions that result from sticking around a meeting room after and then there is reduced spontaneity. So those spontaneous interactions, such as Hallway Conversations, impromptu brainstorming sessions, swinging by somebody's desk for a casual chat, well, they're less likely to occur in a hybrid work environment, at least with everybody.

You might have the people who are in the office on the same days having those spontaneous conversations, but the people who aren't in the office on those days, or are never in the office, are just simply aren't part of that spontaneity. So there are a handful of like, legitimate reasons why it's so much harder to build community in the hybrid environment.

So let's talk about how to bridge that gap. And let's and again, I'm going to share seven of my favorite strategies for creating community in a hybrid workplace, because given the challenges that we just talked about, it is essential for organizations to really be intentional and, quite frankly, proactive about fostering that sense of community, and that might be on a macro level, like the organization or the HR team or senior leadership taking on some of these ideas, but a lot of the ideas that I'm about to share are things that individual contributors can get started.

They don't have to wait for it to wait for it to come from human resources or their manager or certainly senior leadership. And by implementing specific tactical strategies, you can start to bridge the gap between remote employees and the in office employees, regardless of which one of those you are, and that's going to ensure that your team feels more connected and more engaged.

So these strategies are going to provide practical ways to connect and maintain a strong sense of community and relationship in the hybrid workplace, and that's going to help you, no matter which one of those you are, whether you're in the office some of the time, all the time, or none of the time.

All right, so let's get down to business, and let me give you the seven ideas. All right, the first one is publishing your in office days, so you can create a certain sense of transparency around which days you're going to be in the office, and do the same for your colleagues. Have people share their in office schedules, either on a shared calendar in a platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams, or right there in your Outlook calendar, if that's the calendar system you're using. I've even seen one work team edit their name in their Outlook profile to have their in office days of the week in parentheses behind their names, so that with every email, with every team's message, with every interaction, they are reminding each other which days they're going to be in the office.

And so this sense of allowing your colleagues to know when you're going to be in the office facilitates face to face meetings, those spontaneous collaborations. I mean, granted, they're not totally spontaneous if you're planning to be in the office on the same day that I'm in the office, but that gives us a chance to have those spontaneous interactions that we wouldn't have if one of us was in the office and the other one were working from home.

So also social interactions like lunch breaks and coffee breaks, all of those kinds of things can happen when we know when the other person's going to be in the office, and we can make plans accordingly. Now to make this even more effective, consider setting up a simple system where employees can indicate their preferred working locations for the week, making it easier to plan those in person interactions. And I just heard anecdotally from someone who's close to me that a new person came into their organization, just started working there and started sending an email at the beginning of the week saying, This is my schedule for the week, because they want to create more interactions with others. So they said which days they were planning on being in the office, and the person whom I'm close to who was telling me this was like, you know, that just makes me actually want to meet this person, because otherwise, I've only ever seen them in teams meetings and only for the last couple weeks, because they're new to the organization. So there's some real advantage to this. So it's going to that publishing your in office days is going to lead to more of the spontaneous kinds of interactions.

Now, of course, that does require you to not be in back to back teams meetings all day long on the days when you're in the office. So you need to build some of that white space into your office days in order to have the spontaneity that could come along with being in the office and bumping into other people.

All right. Number two virtual coffee breaks. So virtual coffee breaks are informal, scheduled times where you can hop on a video call with a colleague for a casual chat now, ideally this is non work related. I suppose you can talk work stuff too, but it's just going to provide an opportunity for you to connect with somebody else on your team and socialize a little bit and bond. So you can set up recurring calendar invites for those breaks, or you can use a variety of different tools to set them up for you.

A really simple way to do it is just have everyone who's opting in to the virtual coffee breaks, just put their names in a spreadsheet and then put their names again in the spreadsheet and shift the columns by one so that everybody's matched up with somebody other than their own name, and then the next month, shift the columns again and and so forth.

And so all you're doing is just like adding a row to the column so that the column names shift down one, and so everybody has a new coffee partner each month, and you can just publish that on your SharePoint, or teams, or wherever you publish documents like that. And then it's just up to the individuals who are going to connect with one another to find the time and set that up. Now they could do that when they're working virtually. They could wait and do that on a day when they're going to be both in the office on the same time. It really doesn't matter.

You want to if people are uncertain about how to do this, remind them that these sessions can be, you know, they don't actually have to have coffee at them. It can have your beverage of choice, provided during the workday, like, you know, a cup of coffee, tea, whatever. It could also be lunch, and especially when people are in the office, because, as we've talked about on this podcast before, people don't like eating on camera, so maybe not necessarily lunch on a virtual day. But it could be lunch breaks when you're in the office together, it could be walk and talk meetings also.
So it doesn't necessarily have to be coffee, per se, but you want to encourage people to join these sessions with a willingness to share about their day, their hobbies, their families, interesting experiences, what they did on the weekend, that sort of thing, just as if you were sitting down to coffee with a friend or, you know, a colleague that you don't know that well. So virtual coffee or lunch breaks and again, you want to have people opt in to this. It should not be required. We're not mandating people build community. We just want to create an easy place to do it.

All right. Number three, make random introductions. So you whomever you are, whether you're a manager, an individual contributor, or a human resources person, senior leader in your organization, introduce people who likely don't know each other to each other. Now, sometimes you'll have a reason to do this, you know that they're both that they both love fan fiction, or maybe they both recently adopted a new puppy, or they are both parents of twins.

Now, other times you might just truly make random introductions. Let's say you have two meetings back to back, and each one of them is with just a single person, so you're meeting with me, and then you're meeting with somebody else, and you're pretty sure that the two of us don't know each other. So you might ask me if I can hang on an additional five minutes after our meeting ends, while the person joins the meeting for your next meeting, and then you can make this quick introduction. We both know you, so we have that common denominator in place, but now we have met somebody new, almost as if we were coming in and out of your office at the same time, if we had been co located.

So this is one that you can use in the virtual environment, and you could do this in the office certainly as well, but it's a it's easy enough to do when you're working from home. Now, I have been the beneficiary of such introductions, and one specific instance that comes to mind is that my realtor introduced me to another small business owner who was part of her professional network, and this was my friends 13 years ago, and my realtor did this, and I wasn't even my house wasn't even on the market. I mean, I had bought and sold houses through her, I don't know, five or 10 years earlier, but we were both small business owners in Minneapolis, and we stayed connected, and we were not close friends, but, you know, professional friends almost like being coworkers in an office if we worked for a large organization.

Now, she introduced me to this other small business owner just because she thought we would enjoy each other. And she was absolutely right. And incidentally, it turns out we were both pregnant with our third child at the time. The person that my realtor introduced me to and I so we've been we've been friends ever since. So it's just a really cool introduction. So you just never know where something like that is going to lead. So just make random introductions. Again, really easy to do when you've got two meetings back to back, especially if each of them is just with one person or maybe even just a small group of people. You could introduce one person to a small group as well.

Number four idea. Number four is shared interest groups. Now a lot of organizations, especially larger organizations, have employee resource groups, which might have some which might coalesce around a specific Diversity Equity and Inclusion factor. It could be racial or ethnic. It could be women in the workplace.

There's lots of different ways that organizations already have employee resource groups. Now this is a bit different. So this would be facilitating a group based on shared interests for employees to connect over common hobbies or passions. So these groups could be organized around activities like book clubs, fitness challenges, cooking classes, pickleball or online gaming. It could be yoga or reading or just really anything that people might have a common interest in. So you can use communication platforms to create dedicated channels, so like a Slack channel or a teams channel, and this is ideally going to be across several different teams, or, you know, within a division, or maybe even across the whole organization.

And you're going to you can have people share updates of what they're doing. They can plan virtual or in person meetups, they can engage in discussions, share videos and how tos and all kinds of stuff like that. So providing company support for these groups, such as funding for virtual events or subscriptions or organizing space in person for gatherings that can really go a long way to enhance participation and engagement in these groups, and these groups can really coalesce and come together.

It gives people a reason to come into the office. So if you're looking for a reason for people to come into the office, you know, you can say, hey, our knitting group is going to knit at lunchtime or coffee break or, you know, whatever, during the next Tuesday in the office, or our Pickleball league is has courts reserved after work on Thursday of next week. So come in and join the pickleball league. And if you don't know how to play pickleball, just come and watch. If you're interested in learning pickleball, come and watch. If you just want to hang out with some people, come and watch.

So just getting the word out that there is some common interests for people to tap into is incredibly community building. And again, if it does have support, some support and backing and funding from human resources or senior leadership, great, but it doesn't have to be that. It can be very grassroots.

 Now, one example from an organization that I have been working with for years. In fact, since pre pandemic, they have field agents who like go out on the road and are doing their work out with their customers out in the field, and they've been again doing that kind of work for years and years and years.

And one of the things that they were doing pre pandemic, and now this has spread to their office staff, who support them as well, is recipes that are tasty and easy to pack on the road. So one of their favorites is the salad in a jar concept, where you take a mason jar and you put your salad dressing down on the bottom, and then you put any of the heavier toppings, like cheese or cherry tomatoes or anything that would fall through down on the bottom, and then you layer it up to put your lettuce on top. And that way, your lettuce doesn't get in the dressing until you're ready to eat it. And then you flip the jar upside down, and you shake it up, and then your dressing gets all over the salad. So they were sharing recipes like that, and not just, not just a salad, but, you know, Asian chicken salad, and just lots of different types of recipes that were coming through, and they were building community around that.

And again, now that's extended to their in office support staff, who are largely working from home or working a hybrid schedule. So that's just a fun twist on the idea of the shared interest groups.

Idea number five, having a digital bulletin board or a real bulletin board, or it could be a whiteboard. So creating that digital bulletin board or notice board helps keep everyone in the loop about different types of important updates. And it could be work related things. It could be upcoming events like happy hours. It could be team achievements.

Now this can be in the office, like an actual whiteboard or an actual bulletin board in that is really, really good if you've got shift work, if you've got people on rotating schedules, if you want to know who's in the office today and who might be up for lunch or coffee, they can write their name on that whiteboard or put it up on that bulletin board. So it can be really, really helpful for establishing a sense of community when people are in the office together on the same day.

Now I know in some of your organizations, on the days when people come into the office on the same day, it can feel like a ghost town because you don't know who's there, and so this very visible representation of who's there can help people find each other on the days when they're in now when everyone is remote, then platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams or a dedicated intranet page can serve as the electronic version of a bulletin board or a whiteboard, and you can encourage employees to contribute there by sharing milestones that could be personal milestones. Maybe they're training for a marathon, or, you know, they're expecting a baby or having a significant birthday. Those kinds of things could also be work accomplishments, or, you know, those interests that we were just talking about in the last one, the shared interest groups, so they could be posting on the bulletin board about when the shared interest groups are meeting, or what the shared interest groups are all about. So there's lots of different ways that a board like that can serve to promote community. It's going to keep everyone connected to the interests and the broader activities that might be happening with individuals or really even across a unit, a department or the whole company.

Number six peer recognition programs. So implementing a peer recognition program enables employees to really acknowledge each other's hard work and contributions when somebody like went out of their way to help you. Now, there are some specific software tools that you can use that make it easier to for employees to give and receive recognition publicly to one another. But you can do this again grassroots. You can start meetings by saying, Let's go around and say one person, or let's have one person say something about how somebody helped them this week. And maybe this isn't a round robin. You have everybody do it, because that can take a lot of time. But you could just say, Hey, we're going to open the floor for we want one we want to hear how one person on the team helps somebody else on the team. And that's going to help create a culture where peer recognition is valued, because it's regularly going to highlight those those recognitions. And there's nothing like having somebody acknowledge something that you did.

Now, a lot of times it's like something maybe it felt inconsequential for you as the person who did it, but then you hear the person say how much it meant to them. Now, this not only boosts morale, but it also fosters a positive work environment where really, people feel appreciated by each other and feel motivated and are going to, you know, go more out of their way to help, help each other out. So again, you can do this formally by having your HR team or management roll something like this out. But you can also do it informally.

If you're an individual contributor at a team meeting, you could just say, Hey, before we get started with the agenda, can I just give a quick shout out? I want to acknowledge Janel for the help that she gave me on, you know, the TPS cover sheets last week, because I was really fumbling with the new cover sheets, and she helped me out tremendously. It was fantastic. Thank you, Janel Like it can just be like that, and then maybe at the next meeting, maybe somebody else is organically going to do the same.

Otherwise, you can say, hey, last week, I gave a shout out to somebody who helped me out who wants to give a shout out today, you don't have to be the meeting facilitator. You don't have to be the manager or the supervisor or the HR liaison. You can just start this yourself. And you can also loop in whoever the meeting owner is, or your team manager, and if you're not the team manager, and ask them if it's okay to do this. So nothing wrong with getting permission. But also it's the kind of thing that you could just like, dive in there and and do it and see how it goes. All right?

And the last idea I want to give you is health and wellness initiatives. So we've talked about the importance of well being and employee well being and health in the last idea I want to give you is to promote health and wellness initiatives. Now we talked on the podcast in the past about the importance of well being, and especially your mental well being at work.

Now, promoting health and wellness can significantly enhance well being for yourself and your colleagues at work, and it's going to help build stronger community. Now, again, this is very much something you can do grassroots. You do not have to wait for your HR team or your manager to roll something like this out. You can organize a virtual Fitness Challenge, where people track their progress and cheer each other on and encourage each other.

You could offer online meditation sessions where you play a pre recorded meditation, or if you've got somebody on your team who's skilled at leading a meditation, you could do that could be yoga classes or wellness workshops or sharing videos, fitness videos that you found on YouTube.

There's just so many different ways in which this could work, but when you are taking on things like fitness and stress management, healthy eating, all of those kinds of things are going to lead to a greater sense of community. Now, Will everybody contribute and participate? No, of course, not just the people who are most interested in that, but again, that's where community coalesces when you've got people with common interests coming together.

So if you're going to start it more formally, you can provide resources and opportunities for employees to focus on their well being and and that, of course, from a company standpoint, is going to demonstrate that the company values overall health and well being, and that potentially will lead to higher engagement, higher satisfaction. That's what some of the survey data tells us.

But again, like peer recognition programs, you do not have to wait for HR or your senior leadership or a line item in a budget to start something like this. If you are, let's say, training for a 5k or training for half marathon, or want to restart your yoga practice or take up meditating, you could just put that out there and find out who wants to join you, because also, what the research shows is with something like any of the things I just mentioned, when you've got a community of other people who are doing that with you, you're more likely to stick to it and Create a lasting practice that's going to have the impact that you want it to have.

Now, by focusing on these specific and actionable strategies, you can foster a sense of community and really create some connection within your hybrid workplace, and that's going to make people feel more engaged, more valued, regardless of whether they're in the office some of the time, none of the time, or all of the time.

So a quick recap of the seven strategies I gave you today. Number one, publish your in office days to create a little bit more interaction and spontaneousness when you are together. Number two, virtual coffee breaks or lunch breaks. These can be done when you're in the office or when you are remote. Number three, and one of my favorites, random introductions, introduce people who might appreciate knowing each other, or just randomly introduce people who probably don't already know each other. Number four, shared interest groups. So again, this could be around life stage or hobbies or interests or anything that would be something where people could come together and build community. Number five, digital bulletin boards, or real bulletin boards or whiteboards to share those informal things. Number six, peer recognition programs. And again, it does not have to be led by your HR team, you can just grassroots This, my friends and number seven, also grassroots one if you want to health and wellness initiatives.

Now in the face of the challenges of staying connected in a hybrid workplace that I mentioned at the top of the podcast, it's crucial for organizations to be intentional and proactive in fostering a sense of community. And by organization, I don't just mean the HR team or senior leadership that can be you, you who is listening to this podcast right now, by implementing specific tactical strategies, you can bridge the gap between the remote experience and the in office experience, and the people who are doing the in office experience and the remote experience, so that you're ensuring that people are feeling connected and engaged and getting to know one in one another and really building community.

So the tips and the strategies that we've discussed are going to give you some very practical ways to create and maintain that strong sense of community, and that's going to help people thrive, both individually and collectively. So with these approaches, you can cultivate a vibrant, cohesive workplace, and that's going to support collaboration, innovation and well being for everyone on the team.

Remember, my friends, the future of work is not only about the technology, it's about the values we uphold, the communities we build, and that's what we've been talking about today, community and the sustainable growth that we all strive for. We need to keep exploring, keep innovating and keep envisioning the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead as always, stay curious, stay informed and stay ahead of the curve.

Tune in next Monday for another insightful exploration of the trends shaping our professional world. If you enjoy this content and you're watching on YouTube, make sure you hit the subscribe button or knock that little bell so that you get notified every time there's a new episode out. There are other videos that I'm publishing there too. So even if you're listening on a podcast player you want to head over to youtube.com/JanelAndersonPhD, and subscribe so that you don't miss a single thing wherever you're listening or watching.

Please leave me a review. If that is available, it helps other listeners find the podcast, and that makes me happy. All right, until next time, my friends, be well.

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