For HR professionals, taking aim at the moving target of a “return to the workplace” in an ongoing pandemic is an unprecedented challenge.
As much of corporate America identifies a hybrid working model – mixing on-site and remote employees – as the rational path forward, strategizing the execution can feel like framing a house while the foundation is still being poured. Lurking beyond occupancy planning, seating policies and booking systems is the more nuanced, social implications of the return to work; health and safety, personal values and choice.
Employees everywhere have absorbed constantly changing dialogue and directives – both from employers and officials – and are understandably concerned about what work will look like after all of this. At the same time, we’ve reached a new era of employee empowerment, where companies must demonstrate that they are keeping their people’s needs top of mind. Not meeting these needs means losing talent. According to a recent New York Times article, a record 4 million people (2.8 percent of the workforce) quit their jobs this past April, many of whom never even got the chance to meet colleagues face-to- face, many of them feeling detached from their place of work.
A return to the workplace is best based on a people-centred strategy, driven by data that can inform decisions to manage employee uncertainty.
Here, some key considerations to keep in mind.
Recognize the current state of mind
Constant change is contributing to widespread employee burnout. The emotional fallout from 18 months of COVID has taken a major toll on workers’ mental health, and companies must keep this in mind as they welcome their cohorts back.
Culture and morale are extremely sensitive right now as people feel pushed to pivot their work lives after making huge changes in their personal lives. If companies assume that things will fall back into place, or that blanket mandates will work for everyone, they may find a lack of engagement.
Hybrid work models, while efficient on paper, can exacerbate already-peaked anxiety and other concerns among staff who are now expected to share desks and re-configured collaboration spaces. Recognizing this is step one of any strategy.
Include employees in the planning
In an era of greater trust, responsibility and empowerment, it’s wise to allow employees to feel part of the change underway so they feel their voice is helping drive decisions.
Plan for interviews, deep discussions and other stakeholder engagements to understand how your staff prefers to work, what kind of work they find most fulfilling, and how hybrid work styles can best support them. In so doing, uncover pain points that can be circumvented by thoughtful planning.
It’s all too easy to make assumptions that inform potentially flawed strategies. Getting on-the-ground feedback ensures there are no guessing games around how to organize teams and offices, and garners implicit early buy-in from employees.
It’s also easy to overlook one key segment of the workforce: middle management. Engage this group specifically in strategic discussions as it helps maintain trust and positive morale more broadly. Consider an advisory board with employees from all levels of the company to gut-check any return-to-work strategy.
Executing a workplace program built on choice is empowering. For nervous, reticent employees, this can help them overcome lingering concerns.
We know that not all employees want to work the same way. Progressive companies on a hybrid path may allow them to choose between preset roles that could include in-office 100 percent of the time, in-office half the time, predominantly teleworker, or permanent remote worker.
Long before the pandemic, the Canadian telecom company TELUS rolled out a “Work Styles” program that gave such freedom of choice before modernizing offices to be fully flexible and open-concept. TELUS reported that employee engagement rose from 53 to 85 percent.
Measure performance against objectives
The days of punching clocks are history: employees must be performance-managed against quantifiable objectives. Start by reviewing existing programs and seeing how they can be adapted to changing conditions. This may be a cultural shift, and it will need executive approval and transparent communications to support it. All managers must be on board and given the tools to manage in this way.
Underpinning this tactic is bidirectional trust. Employees are free to pursue flex work, but they must earn back trust by meeting their objectives. Companies that trust employees to design their own workstyles are poised for rewards by the efforts of those employees.
To this end, companies can communicate this commitment to a hybrid style. Demonstrating that leaders understand the ins and outs of what hybrid means, and are willing to change the way they manage employees, will bring relief.
Design spaces that employees want
Empowering employees also extends into office design – where the workplace becomes a service for workers, designed to support the reasons why they are on site in the first place.
To do this, companies must decipher how different employees operate within a space, and consider how it can be flexibly designed to those ends. Teams (e.g. sales, legal, marketing) may need collaborative space at the beginning of a project, but focused, quiet areas at other times. Versatile rooms and pods that can be conveniently adjusted can facilitate collaborative sessions, one-on-ones, large conferences, and virtual meetings.
By the same token, it’s imperative to bring employees back into a space and structure that puts their safety and emotional needs first. Each office should be analyzed for how it supports the softer side of human needs. Ensuring flow of traffic, freedom of movement, and wellbeing can bolster efficiency, culture, morale, and individual comfort levels.
Put real-time data to work
For companies that invest in redesigning offices for hybrid work, it’s essential to measure how they are being used. Take what the data show, and adjust as needed.
WiFi-powered indoor location technology has evolved into a precision method that can be reliably trusted to guide decisions. Far beyond just ‘people counting’, the more comprehensive dataset reveals how often people visit the office, how long they stay, the distinct behaviours among different groups, their interactions with different teams, how they prefer to work, and reveals both their unique practical and emotional needs – all designed with privacy in mind.
HR teams that can tap this behavioural data will see how floor/room/zone/area is used by both new and returning visitors. There is no better tool to validate decisions: if larger boardrooms are hosting mostly three-person meetings, then creating smaller rooms may be the answer. This is evidence one cannot reliably find in surveys or casual observation.
Such analytics ensures office space is used as intended, that it supports staff, and that it delivers the resources and needed for teams to succeed in a changing workplace.
In the end…
The glue that binds these efforts is clear, frequent and transparent communications to staff. Build sound internal communications into a return-to-work strategy. Doing so also avoids miscommunication, a trigger for conflict and dampened morale.
In the hybrid transition, keep an open dialogue, listen to employee needs and concerns, and let them see what the data is showing themselves. If any new technologies, like smart software and employee apps are deployed, it’s up to HR managers to communicate and to ensure employees understand how to adopt them effectively.
Whatever a company’s preferred return-to-work path is, make it a collective, thoughtful, and transparent endeavour.
Written by James Wu.
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