How Internal Communicators Can Build Community to Bring Hybrid Teams Closer Together
— January 18th, 2022
Hybrid work environments are here to stay. Learn how to tailor your communication program to bridge the gap between remote and office employees.
In 2020 companies worldwide sent employees home to work remotely and faced the challenge of reaching workforces far and wide.
Throughout 2021, many companies slowly brought office employees back to the workplace. Yet, according to a June 2021 Gartner study, 82% of company leaders plan to allow a hybrid working model going forward.
The shift is clear: Most organizations understand that our society may never return to a full-time in-office experience. Employees’ expectations for work-life balance have fundamentally shifted, and leaders who want to keep up with retention and attraction are learning to bend a little.
The result? The hybrid model is here to stay, and our communication playing field will forever be uneven—with some employees in office and some remote on any given day of the week.
Hybrid teams often struggle to maintain camaraderie and connection across locations. Employees report feelings of isolation and loss of social relationships with teammates.
Some suffer lower visibility with their bosses and diminishing trust. Others notice that their networks are shrinking over time; when communication is solely task-based, they only interact with the same few people each week.
How can communicators help hybrid teams develop a more enjoyable, connected work experience?
We must become tailors. We know that every company is unique, every team has unique needs, and every employee has a unique schedule. That’s why we must develop customized solutions to fit those individualized needs. Here’s how.
How to Build a Communications Plan for a Hybrid Workplace
Step 1: Measure your audience
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to communicating across hybrid teams. So we must start by learning everything we can about our employees.
Maybe you’ve conducted some measurement in the past, which is great news. But the workplace environment has changed dramatically. So now is the time to measure again, and find out what’s really going on with your employees.
The more you understand about who your employees are and what they need, the better you can design a solution that works for them.
Use various qualitative and quantitative research methods to deeply understand your audience. Look into demographics such as job responsibilities and locations. Learn how employees prefer to interact with communication. And find out what they want and need from a corporate communication program.
Make sure you’re asking the right questions to get to the bottom of employees’ unique hybrid environment needs. Be sure to uncover:
- When are employees able to look at communication?
- How much time do they have to spend?
- What information is most valuable?
- Do they have access to a laptop? Tablet? Mobile device?
- Would they be willing to load an app on their personal smartphone?
This data will help you determine which channels are working, which channels are most important to pursue, what information is most useful and much more.
Step 2: Gather the right tools
Once you’ve completed your measurement, you can take a look at your communication program and your channel strategy to determine whether you’re using the right tools to reach and engage employees.
Here’s some advice when assessing your channel strategy.
- Ensure all employees have equal access to communication. Your most basic goal as a communicator is to ensure all employees have access to what you’re publishing. Go back to your measurement results, take a look at where your employees work—at a laptop, in a lab, in a plant, in a warehouse, in a car or truck, on the sales floor, or in a hospital wing. Then make sure you’re pursuing the channels you need to reach your employees where they work. Collaborate with your IT team to gain access to digital tools for more employees. Explore shared kiosks or tablets, bring your own device policies, and emergency text alert plans. Don’t forget to ensure barriers are kept at a minimum.
- Thinking of implementing a new digital communication platform? Plan carefully. A common mistake companies often make is thinking an employee communication app or intranet will solve all their problems. Before you take that leap, put some strategic thinking behind your decision. Consider how a new tool will fit into your communication system. What are the gaps you found in employee access and communication needs? What type of tool (or tools) will fill that gap? Once you’ve answered those questions, do lots of research to determine the right platform for your needs. There are many, many options, such as email tools, intranet-like systems, and social tools.
Interested in more info about choosing and implementing an employee communication app? See Davis & Company’s Smart Guide.
Step 3: Adjust your channels until they fit just right
To truly tailor communication solutions to your hybrid employees’ needs, you’ll need to continuously make small changes over time that promote interactivity and build a stronger culture. You’ll also want to consider how you can adjust all of your channels to make them work best for your employees.
Here are a few recommendations to try on for size.
Make meetings more collaborative
Research shows that people are attending more meetings in the Covid age than ever before. There are several things you can advise meeting leaders to do to improve their Zoom and MS Teams sessions.
- Counsel employees to consider the audio-visual logistics of their meetings so they can get everyone on the same playing field. For employees in the office, either have everyone log in separately from their laptops or use a Zoom-meeting-enabled conference room. Communicators can work with your IT department to set these up.
- Encourage teams to carve out time during meetings for casual conversations. Use the first five minutes for catch-up chats, just like you would typically do when you gather in a room.
- Urge employees to use video during web meetings. Folks will better be able to read the room if they can see body language and facial expressions.
- Help employees take advantage of the virtual tools that modern day web conferencing provides. It’s easy to create a more lively experience with whiteboards, polls, breakout rooms and the like. These will get people to participate so they are more likely to pay attention and get involved, and less likely to respond to emails or chats.
Ensure information is easy to access anywhere, any time.
Remember our earlier point about equal access. It’s our job as communicators to make it easier for all employees, especially remote employees, to find information. Here’s how.
- Partner with your IT team to improve your intranet’s design and search functionality. This will help you improve navigation, hierarchy of information and search for a more user-friendly experience.
- Ensure your emails are mobile-friendly. Consider email tools like the ones mentioned earlier, or have your design team partner with your IT team to create responsive email templates.
Use more rich media to boost emotional connection.
Rich media includes anything where viewers can experience emotions by hearing tone of voice or seeing body language, such as video conferencing, phone calls and videos.
- Consider amping up your use of videos to communicate with employees. This will help them see what’s happening around the company and build an emotional connection with the content.
- Try encouraging leaders to create selfie videos for quick updates. Or collect employee videos and stitch them together for an event recap video montage.
Take advantage of asynchronous social tools
Asynchronous (not in real time) media such as social feeds gives employees the freedom to digest communication on their own time.
- To help employees keep conversations flowing, consider promoting informal social interactivity and camaraderie via digital tools. A few examples include sharing forums like Yammer, Slack, Chatter or Jive.
Help managers to better support their employees.
One of the most important keys to building community across teams is what many experts also consider the most critical communication channel for employees: their manager.
According to a recent Microsoft study, during the pandemic, managers who have taken a more active role in helping employees manage work-life balance and prioritize tasks have the more engaged teams and have kept team morale higher. Here’s how to support managers to better engage their employees:
- Supply managers with the tools they need to do their job better. Create a communication toolkit including information on their role as a communicator, what’s expected of them, and tools and resources for how to communicate, such as email templates, PowerPoint templates, meeting agenda suggestions, and recommendations on which tools to use for various types of communication.
- Consider partnering with your Human Resources learning and development team to create and deploy communication skill building. Managers need training on everything from soft skills like interpersonal communication to more complex topics like communicating change.
Boost pride with recognition programs.
Study after study shows that recognition is critical for building community and team pride. According to a Glassdoor survey, 80 percent of employees say they are motivated to work harder and stay at their jobs longer when they receive appreciation for their work.
- When developing recognition programs or channels, be sure to make them meaningful by helping employees understand the connection between the acknowledgment and your company values and goals.
- There are myriad ways to develop recognition programs, so get creative! Consider internet recognition platforms, peer-to-peer programs, physical mailers, virtual or physical walls of appreciation or achievement trackers.
How to Build a Communications Plan for a Hybrid Workplace
By thinking about your employees as individuals with differing needs and preferences, you’ll be able to provide more customized communication solutions to help build community across your disconnected workforce.
Remember, there is no such thing as perfect, so continue to measure periodically as environmental dynamics shift, and regularly adjust your tailoring as needed.