Should I Stay or Should I Go…Back to the Office?

Team relationships and friendships at work have eroded because of the current COVID-19 pandemic. As we’re thinking about returning to the workplace, leaders need to address how to make deliberate efforts to encourage positive social interaction amongst teams, while rethinking how the office fits into their business.

September 11, 2020 4 mins read

Right now, leaders are faced with a difficult choice. Working from home has become, by default, the new normal. Many employees seem to have enjoyed working from home during lockdown, and employers can certainly no longer claim that work has to be done from the office.

In my last article, I wrote about how – perhaps a little paradoxically – we have seen a significant drop in work-life balance across our client base at Friday Pulse. As part of our quarterly Culture Profile, we regularly ask clients 15 questions that explore their experience of work (relating to The Five Ways to Happiness at Work). In the time since the beginning of the pandemic, our clients have completed two culture profiles which reveal drops in work-life balance, friendships at work and team relationships.

This is concerning to me because these factors are related to Connect and Be Fairtwo of the foundational ways to a happier workplace. Relationships are the cornerstones of collaboration, the foundation of trust and psychological safety. If these trends continue and worsen over time because of remote working, then businesses may become less innovative and competitive.

Indeed, these insights come at a time of great debate in the workplace. According to a recent survey by The Times, three-quarters of large employers are embracing working from home as the new reality. It’s not surprising as there are so many things in its favour, not least the potential savings from reduced office space. Many businesses are even opting to abandon traditional business models entirely. Some companies like Virgin Money are opting for a hybrid model by allowing employees to work from home while also keeping their office spaces as collaboration zones.

Whether you return to the office or participate in a hybrid model, or abandon the office entirely, is up to you. However, social interaction between employees is an essential part of business. We achieve more together, rather than individually.

The responsibility is on leaders to listen to their people to decide what is best for their company. Polling employees is an excellent way to get a feel for what people are willing to do. When change happens to people (especially if they don’t have a say in the matter), it causes resistance. When they are involved in the process, they are more likely to lend their support.

However, leaders must also be very deliberate about not just how to work, but how to develop team relationships and encourage friendships. Friends at work make the consequences of the pandemic far easier to endure.

As you’re trying to decide what’s best for your company, please allow me to share some insights on how successful businesses take deliberate action in developing employee relationships.


Reframe work relationships as ‘bonding, bridging and linking’

“It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

This old piece of networking wisdom contains many levels of truth. While the people we associate with determine our ability to succeed, social scientists have taken it one step further – to look at the different types of social ties and their influence on us:

Bonding

Bonding is a tie that connects close peers together. In the work context, it’s the strength of your relationship with your teammates.

Bridging

Bridging connects people with different identities and backgrounds. At work, it’s your relationship with your colleagues in other teams.

Linking

Linking connects people at different levels within an organization or society. In a work environment, it’s the connection you have with your leaders, division heads and organizational leaders. Linking works downwards as well — leaders need to be in touch with new employees so they can have ears on the ground, and insights on what’s happening in their firm.

In the office, we’re surrounded by constant social interaction, and these social ties develop organically. Without the office, consider how you’re creating these ties. 

Before starting a new project, it might help to ask yourself, “who can we NOT move forward without?” The answer to this question will tell you something about who you need to develop relationships with to move forward.


Reflecting on what you’ve lost (and gained) during the pandemic

We’ve been social distancing for a while now, and we’re starting to come back together. This is a great time to reflect (if you haven’t already) on the things we’ve lost and gained along the way.  What kind of changes did your company make that you liked? What did you lose that you would like to recreate?

If you’re going back to the office, consider the kind of habits you’d like to keep up. Perhaps they’re social activities — a weekly music playlist, a quiz night — or organizational practices.

But most importantly, how do you create things like stronger team relationships intentionally, rather than accidentally by default?


Where do offices add the most value in your company?

Even with returns to the office, companies need to stay flexible in their approach to office work. This means that it’s a good time to think about what kind of role your office plays in your business.

The office was once thought of as the sole arena for work. But the pandemic has shown that the office doesn’t actually have to be the place we work. This begs the question: where do offices add the most value?

Where the office does add value, however, is as a gathering space. It is a social space where networking happens and relationships, social bonds, and friendships develop organically in the office environment.

It might help to reimagine your office as a place of collaboration — a hub where teams can physically come together once or twice a week. Your office could be a training ground for new employees. It could even be a meeting place for lunch and other activities that bring the team closer together. Whatever role you decide the office plays within your business, a place to develop team relationships is a must.


Should you stay, or should you go?

Hopefully, you’re in a position to reflect on your learnings from COVID-19 and to talk to your people, to determine a course of action that is fair for everyone. Whatever you decide, decide together. It’s the deciding together that increases wellbeing for your company.

If you’re unsure about how to move forward or how your teams are really faring, you can trial the Friday Pulse people platform free of charge for 12 weeks. Our weekly pulse measures and monitors employee experience, providing you with real-time data that you can use in making organization-wide decisions such as whether it’s good for your company to return to the office.

For more information on how Friday Pulse can help you please contact my colleague Clive Steer at [email protected].