With blended working, the challenge for employers is fostering a corporate culture that holds people together rather than keeps them apart.
Encouraging even one or two days a week in the office can help. “Being back in the office a few days a week creates a great opportunity to socially connect with team-mates in a meaningful way, whether it’s going for coffee or a walk and a chat,” says Cathal Divilly, chief executive of Great Place to Work.
The best organisations won’t leave it to chance but will engineer reasons for people to come in either at key times or for particular tasks.
“For example, new hires who have only seen team-mates remotely really benefit from networking opportunities with their colleagues after a period of time being a face and a voice on a screen,” he explains.
“Equally tasks such as problem solving or ideas generation can be difficult virtually. Getting together around a flipchart or a white board, working out how to sell more products, or agree strategy are all great reasons to encourage people to come into the office and connect,” says Divilly.
Management at Distilled, owner of websites such as Adverts, Daft and DoneDeal, has taken a number of steps to ensure meaningful connections are maintained between personnel, regardless of where they are.
“Many qualities make Distilled a Great Place to Work,” says Laura Doyle, its chief people officer.
The foundation of its culture is a well-considered employer value proposition (EVP) which is, she says, that “at the heart of our EVP is our people, they are our biggest asset. They help us collaborate, innovate and always strive for better for our customers, users and ourselves,” says Doyle.
That EVP wasn’t created in a vacuum but by consensus. “First we created a working group represented by someone from every part of the business. We ensured we had a split of males and females, management and non-management and different nationalities to ensure we represented our employees’ voices well,” she explains.
“We asked the group why someone should join Distilled, why they chose to work with us, what our strengths are and how they think people perceive us. We looked at what was good and what we could improve.”
Though it’s “only human” to react defensively in the face of criticism, she believes really listening is vital in order to learn and improve.
“We actively encouraged employees to be honest and open about what it’s like to work in Distilled. We believe that their honesty made for a genuine EVP that truly reflects our company. The workshop was facilitated by an external provider, and HR was not present so as to allow employees the comfort to speak more freely,” she explains.
It’s important to be really inclusive. “Extroverts will give you their opinion all day long, but introverts might stay quiet, so it’s about asking the right questions that will elicit the information. It’s also important for people not to feel they will get in trouble, that’s the culture of trust we’ve created,” she says.
Feedback from staff showed the majority wanted to continue working from home. “Some wanted to come in sometimes but no one wanted to come in full time, so we went with it,” says Doyle.
Ensuring there is no differentiation between those working at home and in the office is vital so it will continue to hold all meetings on Zoom.
The company, which has offices in Dublin and Wexford, organises purpose-built opportunities to connect, including monthly hikes in both locations, and monthly breakfasts. In both cases the object of the exercise is not to talk work, but “just chat”, she says.
As well as organised events such as away-day fun and barbecues, managers have monthly budgets for lunches with their team. In-person training is back too, another great way to forge meaningful connections.
With most working from home most of the time, meeting up in the office has become almost a fun escape, an inversion of life pre-pandemic. “When you go into the office for a day now, it’s like you’ve been on your holidays, catching up with everyone,” she says.
Having such a culture pays dividends. “We have a low staff churn rate,” she says. “And the business is doing better than ever.”