As the COVID-19 Delta variant continues to affect the reopening of offices, many companies are creating hybrid workplace plans. But creating a hybrid workforce strategy comes with many challenges.
Study after study shows that today's workers want more flexibility and opportunities to work remotely. Organizations that don't acquiesce to that demand are likely already losing out in the "Great Resignation." To become competitive, organizations need to develop hybrid work strategies that meet the company's needs as well as their employees' needs.
Here are some best practices for a win-win strategy.
1. Include the right leaders
Because a hybrid work strategy affects the entire workforce as well as business outcomes, certain leaders must be part of the process from the beginning.
At Expel Inc., a security and response monitoring software company, headquartered in Herndon, Va., a cross-departmental team is critical to creating the right hybrid workplace strategy, said chief people officer Amy Rossi.
The decision-makers include the CEO; the CISO, who fulfills the additional role of CIO; chief legal counsel; and the IT department, which works on the nuts-and-bolts technology issues.
Each role has taken on the following responsibilities:
- As HR leader, Rossi focuses on maintaining employee engagement and performance while keeping the disparate workforce connected.
- The CISO assesses the cybersecurity-related risk factors associated with combining remote and onsite work.
- The IT department evaluates new software that could improve employee connections, such as videoconferencing systems and online collaboration tools.
- Chief legal counsel provides insight on external risk factors, which could overlap with tech leaders' contributions, and how to provide a safe, healthy work environment.
- The CEO listens to input from each group, then makes business decisions.
No matter who's involved in these conversations at your company, prioritizing the company's core values is most important, Rossi said.
"Look at what matters to you from a values and guiding principles perspective as you approach all of these decisions," she said.
2. Focus on safety
Health and safety are top of mind for employees coming back to the office -- even if that's only one day a week -- and assuaging their concerns is key.
Staying up to date on COVID-19 developments is a natural part of this.
Expel's leaders pay close attention to CDC and local health authorities' guidelines, Rossi said. Leaders tailor onsite safety protocols to the virus's spread within the community, including capacity limitations and mask mandates.
The company has communicated in clear terms that employees can work from wherever they feel the most comfortable and safe, an important issue since many employees are parents with children who do not yet qualify for vaccination, Rossi said.
3. Consider a new hybrid safety-focused role
Creating a new role to oversee the creation and enforcement of safety policies is also worth consideration.
Leaders can consider appointing a compliance officer to enforce health and safety policies, said Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workplace management at Gallup.
"Employees are often concerned that they can't trust their co-workers to follow the policies, so it's important that the compliance officer [can say] that we're tracking vaccination rates, that we're tracking who comes to and leaves our building, that we're quickly identifying and tracking when there are instances of illness and how that impacts people," he said.
4. Define the hybrid work policy
One of the biggest challenges for business and HR leaders is to determine a hybrid workforce strategy's flexibility (or lack thereof). Will employees decide how many days they work remotely, or will certain restrictions apply?
The nature of particular jobs may influence this decision. For Gallup, this generally falls into three categories, according to Wigert. The three categories include the following:
- Likely unsuitable for remote work. Examples include administrative assistants, engineers, architects, draftsmen and mental health practitioners.
- Difficult to do fully remote. Examples include accountants, auditors, software developers, consultants, analysts and project managers.
- Easy to do fully remote. Examples include financial advisors, insurance and real estate agents, software engineers, database or network administrators, paralegals and data entry workers.
"There is so much variance within companies," Wigert said. "Certainly any job where you have more interpersonal communications throughout the day and you rely on reacting and adjusting to that [is going to be more difficult to do remotely], as opposed to your classic independent jobs, where you're heads-down and focused."
Team managers should determine which job roles are more remote-friendly, he said. HR leaders can provide managers with guidelines and monitor the situation from a broader perspective.
"Try to have HR keep that strategic corporate view," he said. "Are our clients being served? Is our performance sustaining? Are we making sure that people who other teams are dependent on are available?"
Establishing regular one-on-one check-ins between managers and employees is also important, Wigert said. They can discuss any hybrid workforce issues during that time.
5. Update HR policies and talent processes
Deploying a hybrid workforce strategy requires some new approaches.
HR policy updating is a prime example. Because more employees will likely be working off-site, HR staff need to reevaluate company tech policies as well as rules for employees using personal devices, according to numerous experts. The pandemic has also disrupted recruiting, so HR leaders may need to reexamine the company's hiring policies.
Hiring managers must be able to virtually screen and interview job candidates, Rossi said. Onboarding must also go virtual. If half a company's workforce is remote, those leading onboarding efforts must be able to connect new recruits with remote team members.
HR and learning teams need to update training and development programs to include a remote learning option, Rossi said. Also consider what training is suitable for remote learning and what isn't.
"There may be times that it's actually better to say, '… This is an in-person class for reasons of connection,'" she said.
6. Support mental health and stress reduction
Employees continue to deal with pandemic-related stress, so HR leaders must develop concrete methods for addressing employee mental health in a hybrid work environment.
Employers should at minimum include basic mental health services in their benefits packages, said Joseph Allen, director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness at the University of Utah, located in Salt Lake City. Regularly remind employees that those services are available.
"They need to be made aware of that, because I think a lot of times, we don't even realize what benefits we have," he said.
Employee assistance programs, which offer counseling services and other help to individuals experiencing personal problems that compromise their performance at work, are another way to assist those having a hard time, Allen said. However, as with basic mental services, those programs are only effective if employees know they exist. Also, the programs can be expensive, so sometimes organizations dissuade employees from accessing them to control costs.
"If you're going to use an employee assistance program where maybe there are groups that they can go to, or other things of that nature, don't discourage [them from doing so]," he said.
HR leaders should practice what Allen calls "psych 101." If an employee seems more stressed-out than normal or uncharacteristically frazzled, arrange a check-in.
"You can see whether someone looks as though they may be struggling," he said. "During a [bigger] meeting might not be the right moment to ask, but if you notice those things, you can ask them in a one-on-one some other time -- and hopefully not too long in the future."
Burnout is something else to watch out for, Allen said, and it can apply to employees who have come back to the office as well as those who are working from home. Monitor burnout by reaching out to all employees.
"HR managers need to benchmark that with the people that are in the office and with those that are out of the office to try to see who's doing the best," he said. "Who's feeling the best and what does that tell us about what we need to do with our work environment?"
Offering extra time off in addition to mental health-related benefits could also help employees.
Open source software developer Red Hat has expanded its benefits portfolio to include new programs that concentrate on mental and physical health, said Jennifer Dudeck, Red Hat chief people officer. The company, which is headquartered in Raleigh N.C., has also launched company-wide "recharge days" in which everyone takes one day off per quarter.
"It's not just, 'I'm off, but I'm still getting emails and I feel like I need to respond to them.'"
To discover the optimal time for a recharge day, Dudeck's team didn't just assume, but instead surveyed employee preferences.
7. Give equal status to onsite and remote employees
Treating onsite and remote employees equally is paramount.
Ensure onsite employees aren't favored over those who spend less time at the office, Wigert said. He suggests conducting internal surveys to evaluate whether all employees feel they're being treated equally and included in new opportunities.
"[With surveys,] we can assess whether people are getting the communication, the clarity of expectations, the feedback and the development opportunities that they need," he said.
For example, if working mothers feel they're missing out on development opportunities because they're often working remotely, these surveys can bring that to light, Wigert said.
"If they're missing out on that, we need to be able to identify that in the data and make sure we do something about it," he said.
8. Plan team collaboration
Consider what technology will facilitate collaboration between onsite team members and those working remotely.
Think "virtual first" and always add a virtual element to team communication, Wigert said. He suggests implementing the following practices:
- remote participants leading part, or even all, of collaboration sessions;
- holding large meetings such as all-hands meetings or town halls virtually, without an in-person option, so even onsite employees are connecting to a videoconferencing platform from their desks; and
- encouraging onsite employees to put themselves in remote participants' shoes.
"When we're at [the office,] we need to be thinking about the person who's at home," he said. "Pretend that's you. If you weren't onsite that day, what would you want people to update you on or to pull you into?"
Ben WigertDirector of research and strategy, workplace management at Gallup
Onsite and remote employees must have access to all technology, Wigert said. Onsite employees should be able to easily connect their devices to videoconferencing systems, and those working from home need access to solid videoconferencing platforms and the required peripheral devices like displays, cameras and microphones.
In addition, onsite employees should act inclusively during these collaboration sessions.
"We want the at-home workers to feel like they're in the room," Wigert said. "What we don't want is a room full of people who have their backs to th[ose] employee[s]."
9. Redesign the company office space
Consider the physical office when planning employee collaboration.
Prior to the pandemic, Red Hat's offices featured open areas, dedicated work stations, and huddle spaces for meetings, Dudeck said. Now the company is soliciting feedback from its employees, which Red Hat calls "associates," to assess how to reconfigure the space to support a hybrid workforce model.
"We're assuming most of our associates will want to be flexible -- sometimes working from their home office, sometimes working in the Red Hat office," she said. "We're going to co-create with our associates to say, '… OK, how do we now configure this space that was already pretty contemporary, from my experience, into something that is uniquely personal to those teams and how they use their space?'"
Addressing the physical office will be an ongoing challenge as organizations begin to live out the hybrid workforce strategy. Adjustments will be necessary.
For example, organizations may need to deploy new technology as virtual meetings increase, Wigert said.
The major question is how much office space companies will need going forward, he said.
"If everyone comes in and works together at once, you still may need a similar amount of space," he said. "In other organizations, it may be more distributed, and [if] the place is only half-full all the time, they could use less space. But we don't really know that part [yet]."
10. Create opportunities for employees to connect
Isolation is a significant issue for many remote workers, so connection opportunities must occur regularly.
Expel conducts "team touchdowns," in which full-time remote employees regularly come into the office to connect with their co-workers, Allen said. During these sessions, teams collaborate in-person on projects and set goals.
In addition, the company's Slack platform includes channels designed to increase social interaction between colleagues with shared interests. Channel topics include music as well as arts and crafts.
The Donut app, which is available in the Slack app directory, introduces employees who don't know each other very well, creating the opportunity for new relationships.
One of the important elements of job satisfaction is employees knowing how they fit into the company and how their contributions affect other colleagues and departments, Allen said. But achieving this in a hybrid work environment is often challenging because the workforce is partly remote and newer employees have likely only ever worked from home, communicating only with their direct boss and perhaps a couple of other team members.
To address this, make use of videoconferencing features such as breakout rooms during large virtual or hybrid gatherings, Allen said. During these breakout sessions, employees who have never met can introduce themselves, or two teams can discuss their current projects. Newer employees will learn about the other functions in the company and how everyone in the organization intersects.
"If you want them to have that holistic understanding of how they fit into the organization, you've got to have these people interact with each other," he said.
11. Prepare to adjust the hybrid workforce plan
Putting a hybrid workforce strategy into practice is new for most organizations, so doing so will require ongoing strategy refinement.
Organizations should consider a "maturity model," Wigert said. The model includes the following steps:
- Phase one. Communicate onsite and remote work policies, such as when employees may work from home (i.e., two days per week).
- Phase two. Assess whether the organization is achieving its desired outcomes while working in this model.
- Phase three and beyond. Adjust and improve hybrid workforce policies based on what's working well under this model.
"We've come from a lot of disruption," he said. "We have a lot of disruption ahead of us and we're going to need to be able to be agile to continually adjust to these changes. We're going to set some guidelines for how we're going to work together, but we can expect for those guidelines to change."