How and Why We're Creating a Hybrid Workplace
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year and a half since we first started exploring the idea of a post-pandemic hybrid work strategy at Deem. I remember reaching out to my network of HR professionals to find out how they were approaching decisions around returning to the office. I quickly realized we were all starting from ground zero.
After 30+ years in the human resources profession, there aren’t many people-related scenarios I come across where I can’t access some prior experience to give me a starting point. I freely admit the Covid-19 pandemic has provided many new and unique challenges, and where and how to work in the future has been a major one. So, like many of my colleagues, I first looked to “experts” and to other companies in our industry to see which way sentiment was leaning.
Over the course of the last 18 months we’ve all watched companies in the tech industry flip-flop: Some companies quickly announced permanent work-from-home options and others announced employees were coming back to the office, only to later reverse their stance as employees made their outrage known. Now, as 2021 comes to a close, many have implemented some form of hybrid strategy that blends remote and in-office work, which we believe is the option that allows us to get the benefits of both approaches.
Fortunately, as the pandemic has progressed, more official resources and guidance have been made available including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. These are foundational to understanding ever-changing regulations. But those companies that had to reverse their initial stance on returning to the office were an important reinforcement to the philosophy I’ve always held: Your employees are the best source of information about what’s best for them.
If you’re looking for a starting point or a guide to build on, you’ve come to the right place. While return-to-office strategies will vary by organization and industry, our approach to creating a hybrid workplace may help you establish a framework you can tailor specifically to your company.
It starts first by engaging employees, then putting the right technology in place, communicating, and, above all else, prioritizing flexibility.
Step 1: Engage employees and listen
The number one challenge many HR professionals face is trying to understand and manage the plethora of preferences around return-to-office plans.
That’s why the first step in the framework is focused on information gathering. Take time to engage with and listen to your employees, whether that’s in one-on-one conversations, fireside chats, focus groups, surveys, or another group listening technique. Seek to understand the feasibility of their return to the office, how they feel about returning to the office, and what they need to transition back to in-office work more seamlessly.
Current trends show that most office workers still want a landing place to collaborate face to face with their colleagues and re-establish the boundaries between workspace and home. That said, a company cannot make sweeping decisions that impact employee health without first understanding the preferences, values, and tolerances for risk among staff.
In Deem’s case, we have a global team with employees in the U.S., Ireland, and India, which meant we were creating timelines and measuring employee concerns across a vast range of constraints and perspectives, not to mention ever-changing regulations due to the fluid nature of COVID outbreaks. These conversations with employees in various countries brought up deeper questions for the executive team, including:
● How do we reduce risk for employees including those with children who are ineligible for the vaccine?
● How do we respond to indoor mask mandates that vary across locations, knowing sitting in an office for 8 hours wearing a mask is uncomfortable?
● How do we respond if employees want to volunteer to come to the office sooner?
● How do we adjust our policies responsibly and swiftly with the resurgence of Delta and other variants to come?
Step 2: Supply the right tech toolkit
Anyone who has tried to brainstorm on a video chat knows how difficult it can be. With the “you’re on mute” interruptions and inevitable glitchy connections, it often feels like accomplishing anything virtually takes twice as long as it would have in person.
But it doesn’t have to.
The key here is supplying the right technology that supports work in any setting, collaboration both in person and online, and team building. With effective solutions in place, a company can almost recreate the office virtually and more equitably. For example, managers may notice employees they knew as being quieter becoming more engaged with the team through chat rooms or direct messaging.
Most companies have figured out a video conferencing solution, but there are also hundreds of digital options for managing projects virtually. Project management software has been available for many years, including Asana, Jira, Trello, AirTable or Monday.com.
Other technologies include messaging apps like Slack, MS Teams, Google Chat, and Twist, which may help more employees have a voice in team decisions or share opinions. Meeting management apps such as Fellow, Zoho, and Duuoo Teams can help meetings be more effective and improve communication between teams. In our new circumstances there may be many more creative ways of using these tools.
Our teams at Deem have been incredibly creative in using many of these tools and more, and our biggest challenge now is how to decide which apps to continue using. It’s always a challenge for IT to determine how to balance individual preferences with consistency and scalability, but giving teams some flexibility as you figure out what works is important.
Step 3: Communicate, communicate, communicate
Whenever there is change or ambiguity, communication takes on heightened importance. And when your workforce is in multiple locations and time zones, it’s critical to consider multiple methods of communication and to repeat the messages frequently.
I’m a big fan of the marketing rule of seven, that is, a buyer needs to interact with your brand seven times before making a purchase. The rule is conceptual rather than literal, but when applied to employee communication it makes sense that persistence and message repetition is more likely to be remembered.
In the case of a hybrid work strategy, that also means using multiple methods of communication and at different times as employees will be hearing or reading the message asynchronously. For example, when announcing our hybrid strategy, which was largely developed with input from local teams, we started with a heads up to managers in a Zoom meeting which was followed by:
- Announcement and Q&A at a virtual company All-Hands meeting
- Email follow-up
- A brief Slack message pointing employees to the recorded meeting
- Posting on our internal People & Places site
- Local communication for specifics in each office location
- Video recordings posted on our Deem Academy LMS
- Wash, rinse, repeat
Improving internal communication is something we’ll always be working on. We routinely ask for feedback from employees about how we’re doing and how we can improve via our engagement survey.
Step 4: Focus on flexibility
Bridging the gap between the various preferences, values, and risk tolerances of a team may require more accommodation than executives are accustomed to extending. But, framing this in terms of flexibility is a guaranteed way to get executive buy-in and get started. Every executive team wants a safe and inspiring space for their employees to work.
Employees today have a wide variety of interest in and tolerance for coming back to the office. In some cases, the act of isolating in small urban apartments for months on end, homeschooling children while working, or caring for very young or elderly family members can create layers of stress and distractions for employees. Women, in particular, have disproportionately carried the brunt of those duties throughout the pandemic, which leads them to have nuanced feelings about returning to an office setting and a strong need for flexibility to manage both home and work.
At Deem, our initial thought was to have employees pick two days a week to be back in the office and our focus was on how to create a schedule that worked across teams. In surveying our employees, however, the most important factor for being in the office was having team members there with whom to collaborate. Without that, most would prefer to work from home.
We landed on a guideline that suggested managers work with their co-located teams to determine what schedule made sense for conducting meetings in the office. In addition, in each of our office locations we are creating in-person opportunities to socialize, share, celebrate, and meet people outside of their immediate teams.
Nearly a decade ago, Yahoo! banned remote work. The reasoning, executives said, was that chance meetings boost innovation, and speed and quality were suffering in a remote environment. I think they’d have a hard time making that argument today. Watching so many companies walk back rigid positions about returning to the office really reinforces the need to take an employee-centered approach to determining your workplace strategy. Again, flexibility is key.
I believe we’ll see the most successful office-based companies listen first and make compromises. They’ll focus their efforts on reexamining company culture and figuring out how to build and reinforce it both in person and virtually. They’ll create employee engagement opportunities and manage the various risk tolerances across age, gender, geography, and role. They will adapt their travel policy to provide clear guidelines and reassurance when bringing team members together. In fact, a global consulting firm reported survey results earlier this year showing nine out of 10 organizations planned to combine remote and on-site working even in a post-pandemic future.
The conversations I’ve had with employees provided much-needed context in how we consider structuring the workplace and create meaningful opportunities to collaborate and socialize in person as well as virtually. So for us it made the most sense to give employees the benefit of both with a hybrid model. We’ll maintain our office spaces and will encourage employees to come in on average once a week to meet with their teams and cross-functional colleagues in person. We also want to create space for town hall-style meetings to exchange questions and answers, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and enjoy a day where the entire office can come in and collaborate.
However, as a global company with employees all over the world, we’ll continue to emphasize virtual work and create opportunities to communicate and socialize virtually as well. It makes the jobs of leaders and HR professionals more complex, but we’ll need to be more effective at managing employees we don’t see in person every day. The silver lining to managing through the pandemic is that it’s forced us to do just that, and at Deem we’re committed to maintaining and improving how we work and manage virtually as well.
Like many companies, we started testing out what it would be like to return to the office from time to time during the months of November and December, and we’re learning every day about what works and what the challenges will be. With Covid-19 cases rising in many locations and experts unclear on what the impact of the virus will be during the winter months, we know we’ll need to adjust as we go. We’re still working on getting comfortable with not knowing what may change, but the one thing we do know is that the key to our success is in remaining flexible.
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