It’s on everyone’s mind these days – the five Ws of returning to the workplace: Who, what, when, where and how. SHRM reports that 52% of 1,000 U.S. workers would choose to permanently work from home on a full-time basis if given the option. A recent “Return to Workplace” survey conducted by WB Wood, a U.S. furniture dealerships and management company, with clients including Warner Media and Estée Lauder, found that 41.5% of business executives are planning a full-time return to the office. There is a bit of a disconnect between what employees and employers want when it comes to returning to the office. Finding a way to close or narrow that gap in desires and expectations and then executing a new, flexible way of conducting work will be the next challenge for organizations. For many companies a hybrid work model may be the best approach, and here are some best practices to help make that model work.
Be Very Clear on the Who and Why
The pandemic required remote work from just about everyone. Now that the dust has settled, and we are creating our new normal, management must ask the question, “In an ideal world, which positions lend themselves to a hybrid work arrangement and why?” Before a hybrid work model is rolled out, management must conduct a thoughtful analysis to answer those questions and communicate a clearly written policy to staff. There should be no question in any employee’s mind about: 1) Whether he or she is able to work remotely 2) Why or why not remote work is allowed for the position 3) On which days remote work is allowed 4) Performance expectations for both in-person and remote employees and 5) Communication protocols for all employees.
Prepare Office and Remote Work Spaces Now
Many believe this fall will be the best time to return to the office with the majority of the population vaccinated and more children back in school. Now is the time to prepare both the office and home working spaces for a hybrid work model, and corporate leadership needs to get on board and prepared.
With over a year working from home under our belts, 42% of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and one in 10 don’t have an adequate internet connection to do their job. Further still, over 46% say their employer does not help them with remote work expenses. Not only is this a morale and productivity issue, it could be illegal. In some states, including California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Montana, Massachusetts, New York, District of Columbia and New Hampshire, employers are required by state law to reimburse their employees for their necessary job expenses. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits employers from requiring employees to pay for job-related expenses if doing so would cause the employee’s wage rate to fall below the minimum wage or overtime compensation rate.
Employers should have a written policy outlining expense reimbursement for telecommuting arrangements. Multi-state employers may have a different policy for each state in which employees work, or incorporate the most generous legal requirements into a single policy applicable to all employees. Some common expenses incurred when working from home that may be included in the policy include cell phone/internet/data plan charges and equipment required to conduct work such as a printer and laptop.
For employees returning to the office full-time or certain days of the week in a hybrid work model, their safety is paramount. In some cases, office space may need to be radically redesigned to allow for proper social distancing, including refurbishing meeting rooms, spacing desks, adding plexiglass shields and installing better ventilation systems. Additionally, policies and procedures must be in place to address more flexible personal and sick leave arrangements, limits on visitors to the workplace, handling an employee displaying virus symptoms at work and adhering to the building’s health and safety requirements.
Leadership must invest in space and technology to connect the physical and digital worlds in a hybrid work model. Many organizations are considering drastically reducing their square footage of office space and determining better and more streamlined uses of the space kept such as hoteling. Physical office spaces should be appealing to entice remote employees to brave the commute and go into the office regularly to engage with coworkers in collaborative work spaces. Companies must carefully consider the best tech stack to accomplish a wide range of business operations from business management including accounting and human resources to communication tools for meetings and check-ins to project management tools to keep employees on track with the right priorities. Of course, data and its security must be addressed when considering technological solutions for in-person and remote employees. Many companies are moving to cloud computing and doing away with physical equipment entirely in favor of cloud computing’s cost effectiveness and convenience.
Ensure Level Playing Field for All Employees
A hybrid work model can be a breeding ground for distrust and resentment if not handled properly. Employees in the office may wonder what employees at home out of sight are doing. Are they pulling their weight? People have a tendency to assume the worst in the absence of transparency. On the flip side, employees working from home may feel left out since they are the ones always on the phone or on a video screen and not able to interact with coworkers and managers in person. They miss out on the many benefits of serendipitous conversations with co-workers. Both scenarios can cause morale and productivity issues. The challenge is how to marry the physical office space with the virtual workspace of remote employees to promote the free-flowing exchange of ideas and information.
Management must ensure a level playing field for all employees regardless of their physical location which can be achieved through empathy and open communication. Management should create a structure in which the same rules and protocols are implemented across the organization. Managers should be made aware of unconscious bias in which those most like them, at the office or at home, are favored in terms of being awarded coveted assignments, better access to good clients, raises and bonuses. An “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality must be quashed when managing remote workers.
Here’s an idea that could have far-reaching implications for leveling the playing field. Consider locating corporate leaders and executives in a remote location outside of the main office. The benefit of this arrangement are many. By physically moving corporate leaders from the office, you are removing the notion that the “office” is the place of power and decision making. It also solves the problem of unconscious bias among leadership favoring those in the office. Remote corporate leaders are a great resource for identifying the specific tools, technologies and training offsite employees need to best perform their jobs.
Meetings can create issues of inequity in a hybrid work model. It is highly unlikely remote employees participating virtually in an onsite meeting reap the same benefits as their in-person coworkers. Virtual participants miss out on non-verbal cues and spontaneous conversations that forms the basis of so many interpersonal relationships. In the event remote workers cannot attend a meeting in person, why not require all participants to participate virtually, even those in the office? To take it a step further, ask whether the meeting needs to occur at all. All meetings should be subjected to a strong filtering process to ensure employees’ time is well spent and not wasted on unnecessary meetings.
Reexamine Performance Management Methods
Onsite employees have the benefit of more constant feedback through their interactions with managers and team leaders. Virtual managers must schedule more check-ins with their virtual team members and give more weight to the quality of employees’ output rather than time spend working on the output. Some managers have a tendency to micromanage those working remotely which can lead to resentment among remote employees. Time spent tracking a remote employee’s working time is time wasted as it could have been spent coaching an employee towards more self-sufficiency and autonomy. Recruiting the best employees becomes even more important in a hybrid work model as managers must trust employees to get the job done with less supervision. Virtual team leaders and managers must communicate expectations and establish the best protocols for virtual team members to report their progress, challenges and need for more resources.
Smart HR – Your HR Expert
Smart HR has been the go-to HR resource for its clients throughout the pandemic. Smart HR consultants can provide you the expertise and information on best practices to get you to the other side of the pandemic in the most cost-effective and least disruptive way. Stop wondering about the five Ws of returning to the workplace and let Smart HR provide you a clear path forward, helping you every step of the way. Call today.