Building a meaningful work environment

Editor’s note: Bruce Hutchison is the senior customer insight and marketing executive at State Farm. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on, the network for industry professionals, under the title “Hybrid and Remote Working: Creating a Level Playing Field.”

Growing up in a Navy family had us moving every two to three years during my early school days. As a result, I had a lot of experience being the new kid in class. My typical questions were along these lines: Is anyone else new here? Are there groups that always talk and play together? Who does the teacher already know? Why are so many things different from my last school?

Many are referring to today’s working environment as the big reset. Just like the new kid finding their way in a new school, employees today have similar challenges as their companies struggle to build a meaningful culture. Often the working environment can have a complex mix of hybrid, remote and full-time in-office schedules.

So, is there such a thing as a level playing field for learning, productivity and career advancement? Can companies build a workplace of inclusion and take it to a higher level of belonging? Sometimes it feels like a new wave of change, or a troubling national event, is splashing ashore time after time with only the briefest respite. Quite frankly, this can be exhausting, but we know there are answers. Our challenge will be to utilize a variety of skills, including research, to find them.

The start of a journey

Country singer Martina McBride captured it well when she sang, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there's gotta be a little rain sometime.” 

We’re in a time of historic economic, social and geopolitical change. For those of us with leadership mindsets/responsibilities, this should define a time of promising opportunity to try new things, being open to all feedback, to edit, add, adjust and try again.

Intentionality within leadership

Leadership must be intentional and aligned to engage all employees in the mix of hybrid, remote and in-office working environments. Just like a well-designed research project, scoping should include a specific, actionable engagement plan that comprises deliverables focused on:

  • Belonging.
  • Connection.
  • Collaboration.
  • Productivity.

In addition, all employees should be welcomed to share ideas and contribute in any of the following four engagement plan key priority areas.

  • Onboarding plan: Journey mapping the new hire experience from initial interviews, to defining hybrid and remote working expectations, to incorporating experiential elements (e.g., spending time in a customer call center), to longer term career planning should be inclusive of all hybrid, remote and in-office employees.
  • In-office days plan: The target audience here are hybrid and in-office employees. What are the engagement activities that cannot be easily done remotely, can elevate the relationship advantages of being in-person and execute on a planned cadence if possible?
  • Non-in-office days plan: Remote employees are primarily engaged here. Focus on building mental well-being and work-related deliverables like belonging, connection, collaboration and productivity. Ideally, virtual activities should be regularly scheduled, e.g., reserving a daily or weekly “no agenda, safe place” meeting where social, geopolitical and work-related discussions can take place.
  • Major event plan: Explore opportunities to bring all hybrid, remote and in-office employees together for scheduled in-person events on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. One idea is to create an event where everyone hired since the start of the pandemic is invited to attend, discuss their experiences and leverage this event for ongoing additional activities.

Implementing feedback

This is where researchers are their own patients. The engagement plan is intended as an iterative process and dialogue. The learning will be achieved by doing, listening, revising and doing again. At every appropriate opportunity, feedback needs to be actively sought, gathered and most importantly, acted upon.

What is the research plan for researching researchers? Expectations should be high for multiple data points, creative methodologies and actionable results. Research methodologies should be considered iterative and be evaluated for their effectiveness. 

This is an ongoing story

Has there ever been a time in the history of working environments as impactful as now? Certainly, it can be debated if the Industrial Revolution or post-world war environments were comparable to today’s challenges. However, for present times, the need for a “change mindset” must be a priority. A change mindset that focuses on adaptation, promotes action vs. complacency, avoids regressive pre-pandemic thinking and is attuned to the realities of today’s evolving work environments.

What is happening in your company’s work environment? Is there an intentional and aligned plan that is in place and actively being evaluated? Are the researchers researching themselves with regards to their work environment and its ability to deliver a level playing field for all employees whether they are hybrid, remote or in-office?

Remember when many felt the pandemic would be over in a matter of weeks? If we’ve learned anything from the past two years, it’s that we’re not going back to the way things were. The need for an intentional and aligned approach to keep pace, and hopefully get a step ahead of change, is needed now more than ever.