Contrary to popular belief, many ancestral humans did not live alone in caves and spend their days painting walls around a fire. People were largely tribal beings that moved from place to place, chasing seasons and herds. Back then, the human species relied on cooperation to survive. We looked out for others and strengthened bonds that kept us together. Today, these collections of people are rarely called tribes but instead clubs, sports teams, or even coworkers. Groups found within offices are started because of physical proximity and a shared goal. When proximity is optional due to hybrid work, is it possible to have an office community?
There’s a lot of talk about community in the office and its value, ranging from attraction and retention to productivity and more. Yet, there is not a single definition of what community is. Some say it is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. Other definitions go deeper about how communities create opportunities for people to feel connected to each other and to feel responsible for a greater cause. What’s that mean for the office? “Work gives us social connections, professional friends, personal friends. It gives us nourishment,” said Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School professor and author.
Today’s best-fit definition for community is a mix of the above. Community is a shared space, whether physical or virtual, where people feel connected to each other and to a greater cause that fosters beneficial feelings within individuals. Meta, previously known as Facebook, says that its mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”, which is a bold goal for a company that is, for the most part, totally virtual. A force to be reckoned with, Facebook successfully connects people via virtual personas and creates communities. Maybe offices, which started in the physical world and have now evolved into multiple settings, can learn some tips from the virtual giant who is always changing.
ISO something more
Welcoming people back to the office is beyond opening a door, it has to offer more than what people currently have. There is no replacement for the office community and people are experiencing remote fatigue. Groups built on Slack, via email, or happy hour meet-ups do not have the same ties that those people who spend hours together working towards a common goal have. A study by OfficeVibe, a software for employee pulse surveys, said 70 percent of employees say having friends at work is the most crucial element to a happy working life. 58 percent of men surveyed said that if they didn’t get along with co-workers, they would refuse a higher-paying job.
Gallup Research has revealed that people who have strong work relationships produce higher-quality work, have a higher state of well-being, and are overall more engaged. Like C.S. Lewis wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Remote work is “surviving,” but offices can offer up a greater level of living and that element can bring people back in.
Things are simply often better with others. “I think everyone has experienced a ‘flow’ state at some point in their lives. You get engaged in a task, you get super-focused, you lose sense of time, you feel more creative, and you perform at a very high level,” said Mohammed Shehata, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. “As you can imagine, this is a wonderful experience as an individual. But it may be even more so when you are part of a team that forms this unique cognitive rhythm.”
From physical, emotional, and mental health to measurable productivity, the value of community is hard to argue. Finding the right way to create and foster community to new levels is the new challenge offices have. Research from Olivet Nazarene University revealed that the average number of work friends for people that work at home is three, but for those that work in an open-air office is six. How can offices create community if people don’t know each other?
Throwing people in the same room, or same Slack channel, and expecting them to create relationships and later a community is unrealistic. So much of work is focused on getting things done that trivialities like creating relationships and a greater community are pushed to the back, if not totally off the table. Sharing a space is definitely helpful but it’s not the only ingredient. The masterpiece of a community is a bit of a revolving door where attempts to build community later become an integral part of it later.
In building a community, offices have an opportunity to decide what kind of place they want to be. “You could have an ordinary office building, or you could have an office building whose networking events are renowned for creating opportunities, jobs, and professional connections,” explained Equiem’s eBook. “That kind of reputation is invaluable to your brand. It creates an environment people will venture out of home to inhabit.” How an environment is perceived can be a result of what happens within it like holding onsite networking events. If it’s a place where new opportunities are found and people are connected, it’s a good place to be and will continue to attract people.
Competitions between office tenants in a building can be a fun way to expand the community within the office to the entire building. Keeping it friendly and utilizing a common technology like a tenant experience platform can entice people back into the office by competing for prizes through gamifying engaging with each other, attending events at the building, or other initiatives.
Using technology like polls to see how initiatives are being received is also important as inauthentic attempts can backfire and create a forced, unpleasant culture. Polls can also be used to test the waters of what an office would be interested in before too much is invested. But polls should be a part of the answer, not relied on as the only source of information for what people want. How people would answer polls can change day to day and interpretations of the questions as well as the answers can give inaccurate, misleading data.
There is going to be a learning curve as to what community is as it evolves to fit the hybrid environment many offices are adopting. Keeping a finger on the pulse of the office and trying new things without being afraid to fail is vital to creating a place where people want to be and crave to be a part of the community. Life at the office can be awful if all you do there is work and even, through the power of community, our ancestors were able to find the time to create art. Offices don’t need to be just a place to do work. We’ve proven work is possible in many locations, so offices have the chance to be and create something much more valuable.