6 tips for creating strong work connections in a hybrid office, according to an expert

 If working remotely during the pandemic made staying connected with coworkers a challenge, a new era of hybrid work is going to make things even trickier.

Laysha Ward is certain “the future of work will be hybrid” and, as Target’s executive vice president and chief external engagement officer, she has an idea of what it takes to engage and deepen relationships with team members, leaders, and community stakeholders.

The pandemic has made staying connected harder but also pushed people to realize how much they need it at work, at home, and in their community, Ward tells CNBC Make It: “We need human relationships now more than ever coming out of the pandemic and in the midst of racial reckonings and the uncertainty that’s happening around the world.”

To be sure, Ward has more than 30 years of experience building professional connections during her tenure at Target and knows not everyone will have an easy time with it. But feeling connected with colleagues could help people feel more satisfied at work, she adds, particularly during a period of high turnover in the white-hot labor market. “I believe when employees feel they belong, they’re more engaged, perform better, and are more likely to stay,” Ward says. “Even outside of the workplace, we crave that sense of belonging and community as well.”

She offers six tips for establishing strong connections with colleagues in a pandemic-era hybrid environment.

Introduce in-person interactions if possible

First, she encourages people where possible to get back to some in-person human interaction. She recalls a recent business trip to New York City to visit staff at retail Target stores. “It was inspiring to be back in the community with our team and with our partners,” she says, adding that she’s trying to do the same with friends and family as well.

Mix old-school and tech tools to connect

Second, she recommends leveraging both traditional “old-school” methods and new technology to stay in touch. “I sometimes send people handwritten notes, or call and text, alongside using apps like Zoom or Teams,” Ward says. “The future of work will be hybrid, and making sure people have the tools to reconnect is really important.”

Expand your digital network

To that end, Ward recommends people expand their networks digitally beyond who they interact with every day, “whether it’s LinkedIn or, or even internal tools in companies like Slack that allow us to stay connected, get to know one another, and share insights that help us feel a connection in community.”

Meet people where they are

Ward’s fourth suggestion is to be flexible and empathetic. She encourages people to remember “this is a very personal journey, and we have to meet people where they are.”

Start with one person

With all those considerations in mind, Ward says to make a plan and start slowly. “Make a list of people you want to connect with. Maybe it’s someone you fell out of contact with, someone new you just started working with, or someone in your network you’d like to develop a relationship with. Start with one person.”

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Building relationships requires vulnerability from everyone involved. Remember that you’re not the only one craving human interaction — social belonging is a fundamental human need. “So I just remind people: Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Ward says. “We all need it and we could all give it.”

Ward also challenges people to make connections through a lens of equity and inclusion. “So often, people build a network of people who are just like them,” she says. “I like to push on expanding the tent and connecting with people who don’t look like, talk like, think like, or act like us.”

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