To Get People Back in the Office, Make It Social

As people around the world return to restaurants, concerts, and travel, there’s one place many of them don’t go: the office. Many executives who craved, demanded or expected a return to the office (RTO) of five days a week and 9 to 5 have been disappointed and in some cases even had to withdraw mandates.

In today’s hybrid world, “work” is increasingly something people do, not a place they go. There’s no going back to 2019, so it’s time to rethink the role of the office – for both workers and businesses.

Empowered, energetic employees create competitive advantages. Until now, however, business leaders have had more questions than answers about how the office can best support and engage their employees in a hybrid world. Our latest research at Microsoft shows that the answer may lie in what I believe should be the focus of every leader: reconnecting people.

The value of the office is in the people, not the place

There is absolutely a strong desire among business decision makers (BDMs) to get people back in the office. Data from our latest Microsoft Work Trend Index study shows that 82% of BDMs say they are committed to returning to the office in person. But two years with no commute and the ability to manage work-life balance more effectively means employees are looking for a compelling reason to lug back to the office — and 73% of them say they need a better reason than only the expectations of the company. So the question is what is a compelling reason to come to the office?

It’s simple: people care about people.

When asked what would motivate them to come into the office, employees had a clear answer: Social time with colleagues:

  • 85% of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.
  • 84% of employees would be motivated to go to the office if they could chat with co-workers.
  • 74% of employees would go to the office more often if they knew their “work friends” were there.
  • 73% of employees would go into the office more often if they knew their direct team members were there.

I felt this power of connection firsthand on a trip to the UK and Germany this spring – my first business trip since the pandemic began. As I met with local staff, clients, creatives and students throughout the week, I was blown away by how energized I felt – and was reminded that it wasn’t the physical office I’d missed, it was the people at the office.

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The data shows I’m not the only one experiencing this. With approximately half of employees saying their relationships are weakened outside of their immediate workgroup, and over 40% saying they feel disconnected from their organization as a whole, ensuring that people have the opportunity to reconnect. And let’s not forget the huge cohort of people who started or changed jobs during the pandemic shutdown. Every face is new to her.

Executives recognize how difficult it can be to make connections, with nearly 70% saying maintaining cohesion and social connections within teams has been a moderate to major challenge due to the hybrid shift. But now they must recognize its importance and take action – or risk losing the social capital that keeps businesses running.

Leaders must consciously use the office to rebuild social capital: the value workers derive from their networks, such as For example, getting new ideas and inspiration, being able to ask for help or advice, or finding new career opportunities. Social capital is not a nice-to-have; It’s critical for employees to do their best work and for companies to continue to innovate. Therefore, creating the conditions for meaningful connection at all levels should be at the heart of every organization’s RTO plans.

It starts with showing employees that coming into the office is more fulfilling than the random desire to see “bodies in seats.” Leaders must prioritize building and rebuilding connections between people to foster creativity, teamwork and strong support systems that empower them to overcome challenges. Here are three ways to do it.

Get rid of the busy work

Make connection your top priority for personal time. Nobody wants to go to the office just to spend the day video calling and answering emails and pings. But that’s exactly what could happen unless leaders and managers intentionally create both the space and permission for employees to spend that time reconnecting.

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Understand that this face-to-face socializing doesn’t hamper productivity—it fosters innovation, psychological safety, bonding, and more. To promote and protect connection time, encourage employees and teams to set office norms for expected response times so attendance doesn’t become a jumble of overlapping deadlines. And to ease fear of piling up work, consider introducing days without team meetings or encouraging employees to book and protect focus time so employees know they can catch up later. Consider non-meeting Fridays, for example: Recharged from face-to-face time earlier in the week, employees have uninterrupted focus time and can spend the day in “get it done” mode.

Create new personal rituals

To help rebuild social capital and team bonds, leaders need to design experiences that bring people together in new ways. Intentionally create opportunities for connection, such as For example, host an extended catered lunch at a popular nearby restaurant to attract local employees to the office, or host quarterly “Team Weeks” that bring local and remote employees together for a series of daily on-site workshops.

Younger employees particularly like using their time in the office to establish themselves as part of their work community and to feel closer to their colleagues. To a greater extent than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts, Gen Z and Millennial workers see the office as an opportunity to build relationships with leaders and their line managers. But just as importantly, 78% of them said seeing their work friends gives them extra motivation to work in person.

So when onboarding new hires, intentionally build in extra face-to-face time to socialize. And for employees just starting out in their careers, consider creating targeted events to help them build their networks. Just last month, I had the opportunity to do both when I spoke to our new Microsoft Marketing College employees as part of their week-long onboarding program. And that although the goal was to inspire sheI walked away feeling inspired, energized and – yes – connected.

Whatever you do, do it with authenticity

In our latest Work Trend Index, 85% of employees ranked authenticity as the most important quality a manager can have to help them do their best work. The good news is that 83% of business decision makers say it’s important for their leaders to appear authentic, so awareness is relatively high everywhere.

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So what does authenticity look like in practice? It starts at the top by setting the tone for an authentic culture where open, genuine and empathetic connections can flourish. You must lead by example and use an authentic voice that conveys openness, inclusivity and that you are there to help people build their social capital. We strongly urge people at Microsoft to put themselves fully into work and that is only possible when they have psychological safety, especially for employees who come from underrepresented groups and may not see themselves in the people around them . As a leader, I always wonder how I can create a culture and work environment where every employee feels safe to connect on a deeper level, beyond transactional relationships.

Authentic culture and communication needs to go beyond the physical space as not every employee will be in the office every day or even every month or quarter depending on where they live. Increasing the interface area is particularly important to ensure we don’t lose ground on inclusion; since employees from underrepresented groups are more likely to prefer remote working, managers need to be sure that their communication is getting through Everyone employees wherever they work. Using multimedia formats such as podcasts or interacting in internal forums creates an ongoing conversation and two-way dialogue that helps people feel connected, informed and engaged. For example, I always get more questions than I can reach in the live Q&A portion of my All Hands. But the conversation doesn’t have to end with the event—instead, my leadership team and I follow up on unanswered employee questions on our Microsoft Marketing forum, keeping the discussion and information flow flowing.

We are all still learning how to do hybrid work properly. The research shows that the key to the office’s new role is to put people first by fostering connection between employees.

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