In order to support in-person collaboration while maintaining flexibility, Hootsuite Inc. is encouraging employees to reconnect with their co-workers through its new Perch Days program.

“We started our distributed workforce strategy during [the coronavirus pandemic],” says Tara Ataya, the company’s chief people and diversity officer. “With this strategy, we have taken a test-and-iterate approach to in-office, hybrid and remote options and it has really been employee-led. One of the things we heard from employees is nobody wants to come in and write lines of code or sit on calls beside each other all day — they’re looking for opportunities to connect.”

Perch Days, which were introduced this summer, feature formal and informal opportunities for employees to connect through lunch and learns, team meetings and ‘ask me anything’ sessions with the executive team. Employees who work close to an office can come in two days a week to collaborate and socialize with each other, but the company hasn’t mandated a return to the office.

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Perch Days create ‘gravity pulls’ and events that would encourage people who want to connect with their co-workers to come into the office, says Ataya. “We’ve curated different things for employees to create a sense of connection because that’s what they want. The human [interaction] side is what’s missing while working from home. People love the flexibility of being able to work from home, but when they come in, they want to have social moments with co-workers.”

Ashley McFarlane, senior vice-president at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.’s London, Ont. office, is seeing more and more companies offer some type of hybrid work arrangement. A 2023 Gallagher report found only 32 per cent of employers were sticking to fully remote work.

“We see 78 per cent of companies going to a hybrid work arrangement [to improve flexibility], which really shows a consistent trend there,” she says. “When we think of how many days constitute a hybrid arrangement, we’ve seen a big spread across those numbers. But two to three days seems to be the most consistent definition of hybrid work.”

Connection and collaboration

In-office days are important because of the social connection and getting to know co-workers on a more personal level, as opposed to the transactional feel of meetings, says Ataya.

“It could be something like interactions in the lunch room, talking about favourite foods or maybe they need advice on something. It allows people to create relationships and further employee well-being. Also, just being able to read body language in a different way — a big part of communication is body language. It’s great, especially when somebody’s new to Hootsuite, to have them come in and understand the culture and their co-workers.”

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McFarlane agrees social connection and collaboration are key benefits of having employees come into the office, along with fostering culture, developing interpersonal skills and career development opportunities.

She highlights an example from her own office, when she walked past two colleagues and witnessed them do a fist bump. “I thought to myself, ‘You definitely can’t fist bump over,’ so it was a clear example of that team collaboration in person.”

By the numbers

78% of companies are using a hybrid work arrangement to increase flexibility.

32% of employers are sticking to fully remote work.

• Of the employers offering hybrid work, 27% don’t require a set day in the office.

Source: Gallagher’s 2023 workforce trends report

Hootsuite has also changed some of its office spaces to allow for more collaboration, creating more spaces that encourage employees to be social and discuss work projects. “We’re creating those opportunities for people to sit together and collaborate or have a coffee and talk,” says Ataya. “The feedback we’re hearing from employees is just the positivity around us listening and [supporting them].”

Keeping it flexible

Employees appreciate the flexibility of Perch Days, since they aren’t set days each week, she adds.

“They appreciate the fact that we’re saying, ‘You’re all adults, we have high trust, we want you to live your lives and work in the way that’s best for you.’ As an example, [one week] I had to drop my son off at school, so I didn’t participate in Perch Days like I normally do. . . . It’s not a [set structure] so I appreciated having some flexibility.”

Read: Employees want flexible working, better benefits to return to workplace: survey

Ataya believes Perch Days can help attract employees because it shows potential employees that the company’s culture focuses on support, trust and flexibility. “I think these are really important components of attraction and retention, in this market specifically. People are looking for the ability to join an organization that’s going to listen to employees and support their diverse needs.”

One of the best ways employers can encourage employees to come into the office is by having open and vulnerable conversations, notes McFarlane, adding a key part of the conversation is letting them know why it’s crucial to have employees in office.

Perks like free lunches or social events are a good early motivator, she adds. “Offering perks to get employees into the office definitely works. It helps set the stage for the office culture and provides an opportunity to discuss why it’s important to have employees in the office. If you can start with perks and special events, they’ll help motivate people to take those first steps to get to the office. Hopefully, they’ll remember [how nice it is] to connect with people and strengthen those interpersonal skills.”

No one size fits all

Hootsuite’s Perch Days are still technically in the pilot phase, but with the positive feedback so far, Ataya says they’ll likely continue into the next few quarters.

“One of our guiding principles is ‘go fast, be agile’ and that involves testing, failing, learning and growing from our experiences. So if people say they don’t love Perch Days and they want something different, we’d be happy to try something else.”

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Organizations that are considering similar initiatives need to ask themselves what they’re trying to achieve, she adds. If it’s about having people at desks, productivity can become more about punching a time clock and less about creating collaboration and a sense of connection.

Every company is different, says McFarlane, and employees have different needs, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when considering hybrid or in-office arrangements.

“At the end of the day, one type of arrangement won’t work for all industries or companies. I understand that change is uncomfortable, but it’s important to be transparent with your employees around why you’re asking for specific arrangements. Sometimes there will be magic when employees are in the office and sometimes it will just be another day in the office. But [we should] choose to gamble on the magic.”

Sadie Janes is an associate editor at Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review.