It’s inspiring to witness how quickly people come together to solve a universal problem. The pandemic proved just how resilient, adaptable, and inventive we can be in the face of the unknown. From distilleries warehouses repurposed into hand sanitizer assembly lines to tech giants, like Cisco, transitioning global operations to fully remote, seemingly overnight. We virtually banded together in uncharted ways to tackle the future.

That’s the key word, ‘virtually.’ The pandemic pushed us to our screens and keyboards, and many of us felt lonelier than we ever had in the past. We missed in-person birthdays, water-cooler talks, and spontaneous hallway chats. We missed the brainstorming sessions, the lunches, and dare I say, even the commute. But, even when the screen was all we had, we found ourselves drawn into conversations about our passions, our families, and our experiences which, in a way, brought us closer together than we had ever been.

Two years of virtual spaces on Webex filled with people wanting to connect and today, we’re looking at returning to offices—time capsules of what work used to be. Everything feels different, including how we work. We are no longer bound to our office locations to get work done. Employers need to recognize that hybrid work is not a suggestion, it’s the way forward. People have moved away from offices with the expectation that they can remain remote, and we MUST be creative about our hybrid work strategies, or risk losing an incredible talent pool.

According to Dimensional Research, ninety-seven percent of hybrid workers say their top challenge when returning to office is their ability to collaborate and engage with others both inside and outside the office. At Cisco, ninety-eight percent of our meetings will have at least one attendee joining remotely. When I open a meeting invitation, I expect to see a green ‘JOIN’ button in Webex, and that expectation goes well beyond Cisco.

As leaders, we do what we can to help meet the needs of our people. How do we marry flexible work options AND human connection? Cue virtual communities, a place to encourage human connection. Over the past few years, I’ve become a more active participant in our communities—places where people come together around common interests, hobbies, employee resource groups, or skills, for fun, for banter, and for support.

Some communities are facilitated and tend to focus on roles, regional events, and executive announcements, while others foster connect

A group of people look at a screen
Communities offer safe and inclusive environments for our employees

Being connected to each other

Our employee communities allow an “always on” interaction – whether asking about a vaccine for an elderly parent, or sharing a favorite summertime family recipe, or gathering support for green giving back event, there is always someone around the world in the group who will answer. Sometimes it’s all we need – to feel acknowledged. It is up to our employees how and when they choose to participate.

In some instances, leaders will stimulate conversations to get people interacting, brainstorming, and sharing ideas. In all cases, these communities bridge the gap between the hallway chatter of yesterday and the hybrid work model of today and of the future.


Encourage learning and improved performance

Role-based communities encourage employees to connect with peers and subject matter experts with the same job roles. Team members share valuable resources, access to training, and guidance; they celebrate successes and help troubleshoot to find better outcomes. By connecting with each other, we reduce support case loads as well, since employees can answer questions and embrace our self-help culture.


Authenticity and retention

At Cisco, one of the first things we learn is how important it is to build our ‘brand’ – who we want to be at Cisco; am I the person that my colleagues can rely on, am I the one with the creative ideas, the bow-tie guy, the support or ally, the disruptor and innovator? Everyone at Cisco has their own brand and our communities enable us to build our brands. When we ask employees why they stay at Cisco, the answer is consistent across the company – we stay for the people.

Communities provide employees with equal opportunities to voice their opinions in a safe environment, to get involved in issues that they’re passionate about. They are inclusive spaces and foster peer recognition, they serve as connecting the dots across the company, they organize outreach inside and outside our company. I can only ask, why wouldn’t we want to keep these communities thriving?

Big, disruptive changes are happening around the world at any given moment – new communities emerge while others gain more participants and awareness grows. Community-building has been around for generations. Making a connection is a fundamental human instinct. We should always find ways of bringing people together and keeping that inspiration alive, today, and every day.

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