Of all the decisions facing retail leaders, the choice between initiating a gradual return to the office and shifting to a predominantly home working model must be among the toughest.

In a fast-moving, dynamic sector the social interactions that take place in offices and stores up and down the country shape a company’s culture. Friendships are formed; values are embedded; ideas are debated; successes are celebrated and failures interrogated when people come together day-after-day under the same roof.

Through necessity, many businesses and their employees have adapted remarkably well to home-working during the pandemic. But maintaining the same sense of togetherness and focus in the long-term will be more challenging.

Conversations I’ve had with C-suite executives suggest that not all employees will return to the office once the threat from Covid-19 subsides. Of those that do, many will continue to balance home and office working long into the future.

How then can positive organisational cultures be sustained when people are physically removed from one another?

Although the office dynamic cannot be replicated entirely at home, businesses can take steps to ensure employees continue to feel engaged and valued.

First and foremost, as an employer you have a duty to support people’s basic hygiene needs when working remotely. While it won’t be practical to carry out a risk assessment for every home, businesses need systems in place to ensure colleagues are safe and secure in their own space. Do they have the equipment they need? Are they comfortable? Do they have any concerns and if so how can you address these?

Insist that people take regular breaks and a full hour for lunch. Do not, intentionally or otherwise, create a culture of presenteeism. It may feel that having people ‘always on’ is good for productivity but over time it will breed resentment.

Ditch the phone and cut down on email. Phone calls and emails are fine for imparting specific information but they don’t help people feel emotionally connected to one another. Instead, encourage colleagues to have video conversations via platforms like FaceTime or WhatsApp throughout the day as the new normal. When people see another face they are instinctively more likely to engage in the kind of small talk that would usually take place at the tea station or by a desk and is so important in building relationships.

The same goes for managers, albeit with the caveat that surprising team members with an unscheduled video call risks feeling intrusive when they are in their own home. Give people 10 minutes notice of your intention to call so they can prepare accordingly. Then invite colleagues to do the same to you. A reliance on emails, especially those filtered through managers or personal assistants, risks perpetuating any sense of disconnect employees working from home already feel.

Where safe to do so, arrange regular face-to-face team meetings in the office. Buy coffees and cakes or sandwiches and leave plenty of time for colleagues to catch up before you get into the detail of the meeting. If this isn’t possible, build in time at the start of virtual meetings for non-work conversation.

Celebrate birthdays and other events as you would in the office with cards, gifts and (where feasible) cake!