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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

Hybrid Work Makes Some People Feel Disconnected—But This Company Isn't Letting That Happen

Mary Piontkowski, Ben Fallon, Jessica Gilbert
Mary Piontkowski, Ben Fallon, Jessica Gilbert

Hybrid work is a model embraced by many companies these days, as they seek to accommodate employees who want to keep working remotely and those who want some in-office time. IT company Cisco Meraki realizes that hybrid work is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We want our employees to be able to work how they feel most empowered so that they can have the best experience of their careers,” says Jessica Gilbert, the company’s head of inclusion and collaboration. “When you are able to do your best work, not only do our employees benefit, we as an organization benefit, including our customers.”

Company leaders are ensuring that their teams feel connected and inspired, “regardless of where they sit,” says Gilbert.

Making a hybrid work environment inclusive, engaging, and flexible depends on redefining work as “something we do, not just where we go,” says Ben Fallon, senior director of global virtual sales in the U.K.

“Hybrid, by definition, means it’s going to be a mix of home, office, and everywhere in between,” he says. “We still recognize the power of bringing people together to engage, interact, and build knowledge. The opportunity that comes with a more flexible working environment means we can access different, and often more diverse, talent pools.” 

Employee choice will be the focus—some will stick to remote work, while others may spend time in the office. Whatever they choose, making everyone feel connected and included will be the priority. Here’s how Cisco Meraki is making it happen.

Creating a conscious inclusive culture

When Cisco Meraki began exploring hybrid work, company leaders examined how effective teams had been working remotely during the pandemic and realized that giving employees the flexibility to choose how they work could help retain and attract talent going forward, says Mary Piontkowski, head of product design.

“Our employees told us that they have different needs and hugely appreciate the flexibility, so in the end, we see it as a win-win to fully embrace hybrid work,” says Piontkowski, whose team of approximately forty individuals work remotely and in-office.

What makes it all work, Gilbert says, is focusing on five areas to promote inclusivity—being more curious, listening, acting as an ally, connecting, and building trust.

The company created a “leader-led discussion guide” and asked leaders to discuss these behaviors with their teams and create personal and team action plans to foster an inclusive culture, she says. For example, check-in questions are asked before each team meeting. Leaders are then encouraged to pay attention to employee behavior during meetings, like body language, who’s participating, and who’s on camera during video calls.

“It’s not just peppering folks with questions, it requires listening deeply and looking for ways that you can act as an ally for your team,” Gilbert says. “It’s these actions that deepen the connection and build trust.”

Fostering intentional collaboration and connection

Ensuring remote employees have the same visibility as all other teams is crucial in a hybrid work model, Piontkowski says. Cisco Meraki carefully plans meetings to accommodate different time zones and offers pre-recorded presentations in some instances.

Cisco’s Webex technology, which includes simultaneous translation, closed captioning, document sharing, video conferencing, and chat features, enables teams to collaborate seamlessly, Fallon adds.

“We encourage teams to build their own identity and practices so team members always feel engaged in the business both personally and professionally,” he says.

Asynchronous communication, shared calendars, and vacation and out-of-office flags ensure connectivity, Piontkowski says. Focusing on objectives, results, and progress aligns everyone on projects and tasks.

To foster emotional and personal connections, employees are paired with a team member and a cross-functional buddy to broaden their networks, Piontkowski says. The company encourages leaders to bring their teams together to build connections even in virtual environments by hosting events, like escape rooms and team trivia games.

Meeting rituals also bring teams together and create a sense of togetherness, she says. For example, teams host monthly lunches, monthly gratitude sessions, and 5-in-5s where each team member presents five non-work-related slides about themselves.

Technology is crucial for connectedness and collaboration, but Gilbert says it’s only part of the equation. “We must be intentional to create the connection to include all voices,” she emphasizes.

Holding regular check-ins

“Care deeply” is one of Cisco Meraki’s values, and the company offers resources and support to promote employee well-being and career growth. For example, Piontkowski says employees can take days off beyond their regular PTO for themselves, to volunteer, or because of COVID-19.

Employees are also encouraged to talk to their managers about any problems or struggles, personally or professionally. “I try to be open and honest about when I’m struggling,” Gilbert says. “By being vulnerable myself, I make it easier for my employees and my colleagues to share their own, which allows me to then help them learn about resources available to them.”

Weekly employee check-ins are also held to make employees feel supported and ensure that tasks are completed, Fallon says. Quarterly one-on-one leadership meetings are held to discuss the company’s best practices.

As Cisco Meraki fully rolls out its hybrid work strategy, achieving the right balance of personal, one-on-one conversations and consistent communications, like email and video, is essential.

“Too many pre-recorded videos feels too impersonal, while too much one-on-one can make the team feel they lack purpose or direction,” Fallon says. The company is also identifying patterns in in-person attendance to develop collaboration days where employees can get the most value from being in the office.

Developing a workplace of the future

Pre-pandemic, Cisco Meraki primarily had an in-office culture. Shifting to working remotely was a big transition for the organization, Gilbert says, but they realized they could still maintain productivity, inclusivity, and connectedness. Now, they’re embracing the best of both worlds through hybrid work.

“People are very productive when you strip out commutes,” she says. “That said, we have to be careful of burnout and need to think more about how so much screen time with two-dimensional humans can have downstream effects, and get ahead of those.”

Leadership teams will continue to listen to employees and design a workplace around their needs, desires, and pain points. By embracing an inclusive hybrid workplace, Cisco Meraki can offer top-notch employee experiences, Gilbert says.

“People are reprioritizing what is important for them and looking for organizations that support their new priorities,” she says. “Really, what we call a ‘hybrid workplace’ today we will soon become the norm."