(Photo by Kateryna Onyshchuk/iStock by Getty Images)

Helping employees stay connected to the company and each other while they work apart is the pandemic’s lingering dilemma.

For organizations transitioning to a hybrid format after more than two years in a largely remote work environment, the adjustment brings with it the challenge of keeping dispersed teams of colleagues humming in sync even when people are working in the office on opposite days.

Employees have come to expect more flexibility in their schedules, but also say they are having more trouble setting boundaries for when work ends and home life begins, according to Katrina Howchin-Tucker, global VP for people and performance at Kraft Heinz. The commute back home from the office used to provide that physical distinction, signaling when the work day was over. “People have found it hard to switch off in the new world,” she said. “The line between life and work has become incredibly blurred.”

The packaged-foods giant recently moved to a hybrid format with a requirement that employees come into the office three days a week, regardless of location. The company is still figuring out just what that social and structural transformation entails, Howchin-Tucker said in a one-on-one conversation with Nicole Smith of Harvard Business Review at From Day One’s virtual conference on Strategies for Communication & Collaboration in the Hybrid Workforce

“Communication and collaboration today is very much core to what we’re working on improving as we continue to grow as a company,” Howchin-Tucker said.

Within the Kraft Heinz organization, teams under the new hybrid model are establishing their own hours through agreements with their managers, in response to employees’ need for greater autonomy in how they approach their work, Howchin-Tucker said. While everyone must come into the office three days a week, some teams are working in person on the same days, while others are opting for more flexible scheduling.

A fireside chat with moderator Nicole Smith of Harvard Business Review and Katrina Howchin-Tucker of Kraft Heinz (Image by From Day One)

After two years at home, people transitioning back into the office environment also are struggling with loss of privacy and concerns about confidentiality. Ultimately, though, Howchin-Tucker thinks autonomy and connection can go hand in hand. The trick is to keep the focus on performance, along with “giving yourself permission to know that we’re all transitioning,” she said.

“I think autonomy is something we can all achieve. What I think companies are struggling with right now is, how do you appease everybody’s different definitions of autonomy?” Howchin-Tucker said.

The veteran HR leader said her own view of how much time someone needs to spend in the office to be productive has evolved since the pandemic began. Thanks to technology, work from home can be incredibly efficient. Howchin-Tucker said she found sitting in front of a screen with messaging, videoconferencing and texting capabilities allowed her to be more accessible and respond far more quickly to co-workers. “I’ve realized that collaboration and connection, for me, actually was more effective in the last two years,” she said.

On the flip side is a tendency for people’s networks in a hybrid model to become smaller and more insular, revolving around their immediate teams. To counterbalance this effect, Howchin-Tucker recommends people build time into their calendars to make informal connections with others, the equivalent of walking around the office floor and bumping into people to have a chat.

To help employees get better connected with the overall Kraft Heinz strategy and culture, the company is stepping up its use of town hall meetings, sharing more information, and creating global mission statements that apply to every role and location in the organization. Making sure employees know they are appreciated is also key to the success of the hybrid model.

Recognition is very important right now,” said Howchin-Tucker. “As you think about community and collaboration and communication, to say ‘We know you’re working hard, despite the fact we may not see you every day in the office.’”

One thing employees should not have to worry about is whether working from home will limit their career opportunities in the company.

­“We’re a very meritocratic organization, and your performance speaks for itself,” Howchin-Tucker said.

Susan Kelly is a freelance business writer based in Chicago.