Minneapolis-based fin-tech company Branch switched to a "remote-first" model during the pandemic.

As a result, the company now has employees in 33 states. Before the pandemic, the majority of its 170 workers lived in Minnesota, said Emily Schnaidt, head of people for Branch.

"We really wanted to make sure that we were able to hire anywhere," said Schnaidt, who used to live in the Twin Cities and now lives in Utah.

But with the shift came the need to have an intentional communications strategy, she said. Otherwise, the company dynamics would not work.

"One of the risks of a hybrid workplace is a proximity bias," said Schnaidt, referring to a dynamic where employees who are physically closest to their managers get preferential treatment.

Branch's app platform provides contract and gig workers access to accelerated payments. The company, which ranks sixth among mid-size companies on the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces list, aims for a level playing field with remote employees feeling no less important than workers who are physically in the office.

"It's important to our leadership that we have fairness and equity without regard to where people are," Schnaidt said.

The importance of intentional communication may be one of the bigger workplace lessons from the pandemic.

A Gallup analysis from last year found that 23% of U.S. hybrid workers felt strongly connected to their companies, compared to 20% among workers overall. Why might that be?

"Hybrid workers may feel more connected to their organization's culture because the office and the remote workplace are being treated with greater intentionality," Gallup suggested.

The pandemic pushed companies to focus on individual employees. Managers worked to make sure staff had everything that they needed to be productive. The increased attention may foster a stronger sense of connection.

The lesson? Stronger, more consistent communication with your staff can help build culture at your company whether employees are in the office or working remotely.

Branch has an all-hands meeting every Monday. Managers are required to have check-in meetings with staffers at least once a month; many do so weekly or bi-weekly.

Schnaidt said that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) values are important to the company. There are monthly discussion sessions focused on DEI.

"It's very peer-led and peer-driven. That gives people an opportunity to connect," said Schnaidt of the sessions. "The result of that is increased trust among teams."

The key to strong communications strategy starts with making sure employees are all on the same page when it comes to the playbook.

What does hybrid mean? For example, when exactly are they expected to be in the office? It includes big messages such as how many days they must show up in person, to which meetings can be joined by Zoom. Experts point out that some managers tell employees a meeting is in person but also send out a Zoom link, which is unclear communication.

Also, how are you communicating urgency, and is it consistent? In a hybrid world, employees answer messages at different times. An agreed-upon method is needed for messages that require immediate response.

St. Louis Park-based Bridgewater Bank, 26th among midsize companies on the Top Workplaces list, has about 250 employees and seven metro branch locations. While tellers must be on-site, Bridgewater has a hybrid work model for employees who can work remotely.

Jennifer Gadient, vice president of human resources for Bridgewater, said it's important to be intentional about connecting with employees.

Each department in the bank has a weekly meeting; an all-team meeting is set for every quarter. Managers and staff have weekly or bi-weekly check-in meetings. The company provides weekly news updates through its SharePoint intranet system.

"It's over-communicating, not making assumptions that people are fully aware of all the changes and dynamics that are happening in the workplace," Gadient said.

Employees are encouraged to be there in person for the meetings.

Communication is not just a one-way street. Managers need to know what employees think is working, what's not working and what needs improvement.

"I think that you have to keep asking for feedback," said Gadient.

A hybrid model is not the only complicating factor. Even before the pandemic, as companies split work into project teams, more and more people were reporting to different managers for different projects.

A new survey of HR professionals by the consultancy Gartner found 40% of companies had increased their culture budgets. Gartner also surveyed knowledge workers and found one-quarter of them felt connected to their organization's culture. But the split in engagement was not based on hybrid or in-office but whether the organization provided flexibility.

Alexia Cambon, director in the Gartner HR practice, said in a statement the answer could be promoting micro-cultures within the organization — in other words, not worrying if everyone feels connected to the main office.

"Employees at all levels, and across demographics, are suffering from a connectedness crisis, which suggests this problem isn't just related to hybrid and remote work, but to organizations' lack of intentionality in driving connectedness historically," Cambon said.

At Wings Financial Credit Union, 18th among large companies on the Top Workplaces list, company leaders set the tone for communicating with staff, said Pat Jones, vice president of human resources.

The executive leadership team has a standing meeting every Monday to meet virtually with new hires, she said.

"The executive leadership team does a really good job of connecting with individuals. They want the new employees to know who they are and that they're approachable," Jones said.

Employees who don't have customer-facing branch jobs can work from home up to three days a week at the Apple Valley-based credit union, which has 710 employees and 35 branches.