5 easy ways leaders can rebuild broken bonds between team members in the return to the office
Updated: Feb 18
As we head back to the office, leaders will be challenged to rebuild team relationships.
Friendships at work are important and make the office more enjoyable, productive, and collaborative.
Lead the way with outdoor happy hours, office meals, fun facts, check-ins, and cohort programs.
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For leaders at companies like JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Baker McKenzie looking to rally their teams back into the office post-pandemic, consider how you'll rebuild your connection with each other.
Remember the inside jokes? The casual hallway conversations that wove your formal and informal relationships together? Maybe you've brought new people on in the last year who have yet to meet you or their new colleagues face-to-face.
Those relationships and in-person conversations used to help smooth over the rough spots and, according to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, spark "spontaneous idea generation."
Office friendships make work more enjoyable and more productive. "We feel safer brainstorming, have more ownership in problem-solving, and are less likely to call in sick," when we have an office friend, Shasta Nelson, author of "The Business of Friendship," told "Today" reporter Julie Pennell.
It's your job as a leader to provide the vision for your employees and right environment for strong relationships. Here's how.
Start now by hosting outdoor happy hours
Depending on where you live, outdoor gatherings with friends and neighbors have been a saving grace during the pandemic.
Apply that to your work relationships as you anticipate going back to the office. Invite employees in the area to your home or a location near your building for late-afternoon, spirit-forward or spirit-free social gatherings. If your colleagues haven't seen each other since their haphazard evacuation from the office last March, this might be their most anticipated work happy hour ever.
An informal gathering offers a chance to catch up on each other's lives, talk over work challenges in person, and relax with people you've only seen through a screen for far too long.
"The back-patio gatherings with our team have been really important to us. Those moments fueled us for weeks at a time," Craig Cummings, general partner at Moonshots Capital in Austin, Texas, told Insider.
Use food to gather a crowd
When you're back in the office, bring in breakfast or lunch on a weekly basis. If your colleagues gained the "quarantine 15," healthy alternatives may be even more welcome.
Outside of the companies that have historically provided cruise-worthy, all-you-can-eat dining service, a free meal can be quite a draw. If there's no budget for it, a potluck is a fun alternative.
It's not about the food, just like a parent-child fishing trip isn't about the fish. It's about shared experiences and opportunities to reclaim the casual conversations we've missed so much.
Encourage sharing fun facts
Finish your staff meeting with a round of personal updates, jokes, or other non-work-related items.
One of the best bosses I ever had ended her weekly staff meetings with "parting shots." This is where I learned about my colleagues' kombucha diets, entirely office-appropriate jokes about the Pope's visit, and rental chickens. A friendly competition grew among us to come up with even more interesting things to say each week, including bringing in the occasional prop.
This probably works best with a group smaller than 10 people. If your staff meeting is larger, perhaps take turns, letting different parts of the alphabet know when their day is coming.
These little bits of knowledge about each other that we've missed through the structure of video conferences can help to establish our colleagues as whole people and give us conversation topics outside the formal channels of work.
Manage by walking around. Stop by your colleagues' desks. Don't be nosy or ask direct questions about health or childcare, but try a simple question about how they or their family are faring. Perhaps ask about their transition back to work or their commute.
Be sure to stick around to listen to the answer. Maybe take a seat and ask a follow-up question — a slide-by in the hallway while you maintain your stride doesn't count.
Coming back to the office will be a celebration for some people and a source of stress or anxiety for others. "Remember just how much has changed since March 2020. It's about so much more than hand sanitizer and plexiglass barriers. The best leaders and managers have embraced a more human-centric approach to management," Jamie Klein, CEO of Inspire HR, told Insider.
Establish or reinvigorate cohort programs
Consider using cohort programs to enhance professional development and build bonds among your rising stars. Selective programs that identify your elite team members and groom them for future company leadership can result in improved retention and strengthened relationships among participants.
Group training with hands-on exercises about today's necessary skills — cyberincident response, public speaking, media interview skills, and managing a hybrid workforce — can build bonds that last. According to executive coach Alyson Lyons, it's the action-learning projects that make the biggest impact for leaders participating in cohort programs.
Remote work has its benefits, and many will continue through a new hybrid productivity model. However, nothing can replace human proximity and the blossoming creativity of many minds pushing together in the same direction.
Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach, author, and keynote speaker. Find her tips to help business executives, policy experts, and rising professionals achieve preparation, confidence, and career success at Spokesmith.com.