Many companies are exploring new ways of operating as the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our worklives.
While some employees have no option of working from home, a huge portion of the workforce went fully remote overnight. Now more and more businesses find they must balance the benefits of in-office time with employees’ desire for flexibility.
There’s no one solution that works for all companies, and team leaders must focus on keeping employees productive and engaged no matter where they are. As the dust from the disruption settles, businesses are presented with an opportunity to reinvent how their teams work. And leading the charge, day to day, are managers.
It’s an ideal time to reflect on how teams work, collaborate and learn—while maintaining safety, of course. Where should team leaders start?
Ask for your team members’ input.
“We’ve taken the time to really listen to our people,” says Jason Medley, chief people officer at tech company Codility. “We learned that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to work setups. Some people need to be remote while others thrive in a hybrid environment. Because of this understanding, we’ve removed as many barriers as possible to create the work environments individuals need to thrive.”
For Codility, that means employees can use the company’s office hubs whenever they’d like, work from home, expense time at a co-working space—or any combination of those options.
Many other organizations are embracing hybrid work models as well. In fact, 82% of companies said remote work will remain a part of their operations going forward, according to a Gartner report. There's a good reason for that. A PwC survey declared that remote work has been an “overwhelming success for both employees and employers,” with 83% of businesses saying the trend has worked well for them.
Still, some company leaders are concerned that all-remote workplaces may be a detriment to their corporate culture. According to the PwC study, a majority of senior executives believe that employees need to be present in the office somewhere between two and four days a week to help keep a strong culture.
But many employees appreciate flexibility. Some want face time with managers and other colleagues. Others may not want to always work from home, where both job responsibilities and home and family responsibilities intermingle. There are also those who have found that working from home is good for their productivity and personal priorities. Companies need to find the right balance between in-office and at-home time, or employees may seek a job elsewhere.
Focus on connections through communication.
How will teams work effectively when only some members are together in person? Companies must be very intentional about the forms of communication they’re using, says Kevin Rizer, author of Always Wear Pants: And 99 Other Tips for Surviving and Thriving While You Work From Home. “It’s critical to ensure there is clear communication across your team,” he says. “Think about the types of discussion that routinely happen in the office and design your communications in such a way that remote workers are able to participate or be looped in.”
Whether that means collaboration tools like Slack, Google Chat, Microsoft Teams or Zoom, the key is to ensure that people who aren’t physically in the office are included in team time, Rizer says.
Understand that good communication not only helps productivity, it can boost morale.
“Humans are wired for human connection,” says Robbie Green, executive coach at Talking Talent, an agency for underrepresented workers. “Therefore, the very disconnect of remote working poses a physiological problem all its own.”
To reconnect, schedule regular check-ins and team-building activities. That might be a rotating, virtual happy hour with a different host each time, she suggests.
Don’t treat check-ins too formally, though, adds Toolie Garner, a consultant and speaker who focuses on remote leadership. “Keep it casual, as they would be if they happened in an office hallway,” she says.
Your direct reports should have clear goals and tasks laid out ahead of them. This sets expectations on both sides, and makes it clearer as to whether an employee is progressing.
“With those two items in place, the weekly check-in can be more relaxed and can focus more on the working situation,” Garner says. “Then the conversation becomes more human centered rather than a list of to-do items to be covered.”
That frees up time to determine how you can best support the employee, whether it’s delegating their work to someone else or helping them acquire equipment they need.
Determine the optimal number of days in the office.
Balance the needs of your employees and the expectations of senior leadership. While 68% of executives think employees should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain company culture, 55% of employees would prefer to work from home three days a week, according to PwC. So how does an organization decide on the right number of days for in-person work?
Some companies have adopted a 3-2 model (three days in the office and two days of remote work, or the other way around). But it’s not always necessary to have a hard-and-fast policy, according to Arnold Long, general operations manager at Mr. Blue Plumbing, which has about 1,200 employees nationwide. “As long as the work is completed within deadlines and at a high quality, I trust and empower my remote employees to do what they need to do, however, wherever and whenever they want to,” he says.
In fact, trust might be one of the best strategies to manage the shift to hybrid work, Green says. When companies trust their workers, they’re able to better establish working environments that are flexible for caregivers and others who want to spend less time in the office without sacrificing productivity. “When companies create an environment that says they believe in their people to do the right and most productive things, their people will usually live up to that belief,” she says.
When companies create an environment that says they believe in their people to do the most productive things, their people will usually live up to that belief.
— Robbie Green
Executive coach Talking Talent
Help your employees create the best WFH setup.
Many people began working from home with very little preparation. Your employees may have fallen into a routine like working at the kitchen counter. Encourage them to revisit their setups. Support an improved, permanent workspace for team members who will be at home for some portion of their workweek.
“Working from home doesn’t have to be working from the couch,” says Nathan Hughes, marketing director at Diggity Marketing. “Have a well-lit space in the house that you like spending time in and set up your workstation there. Invest in a good chair that is comfortable—but not too comfortable to make you feel sleepy. A desk that can contain all your work files and computers is absolutely necessary for an office workspace. Plus, buy surge protectors, as you will need multiple plugs simultaneously while you are working.”
Working from home doesn’t have to be working from the couch.
— Nathan Hughes
Marketing director Diggity Marketing
Perhaps most importantly, minimize distractions. That could mean an investment in work-only technology.
“Many home workers conduct their work from the same devices that they use to relax, but this would be a mistake,” warns Vincent D’Eletto, founder and CEO of WordAgents. “The human brain loves to create and recognize patterns, and by assigning specific tools that are just for work and a specific area of your home to work in, you’ll always be in the correct head space.”
The lines between work and life continue to blur. So it’s up to companies to proactively determine policies that encourage connections, efficiency and corporate culture. And as with any change, be sure to set regular check-ins to see how everything is working and make any adjustments you and your team require. Hybrid is here to stay.
Benefits of Working in an Office
Top benefits of working in an office, according to employers:
- Increasing employee productivity
- Providing a space to meet with clients
- Enabling effective collaboration
- Enabling company culture
Top benefits of working in an office, according to employees:
- Enabling effective collaboration
- Accessing equipment or documents securely
- Providing a space to meet with clients
- Training and career development
Change is often stressful—and we’ve all gone through a lot of it in the past couple of years. As companies adopt new processes and work setups, managers must make sure their team members feel comfortable undergoing even more changes.
“A day’s work doesn’t have to mean 9 to 5. Less pressure on people to conform to the ‘old normal’ can only be good,” says Jo Bean, head of people at Darwin, an HR software developer.
Unmind, a company that strives to build mentally healthier workplaces, offers these tips for a smooth return to the office:
- Encourage discussion on what is gained from a return to the office, such as the sense of belonging and energy that comes from being around colleagues.
- Consider whether you can retain some of the freedoms employees had at home. Is it logistically possible to stagger start times? Could you relax lunch periods to help employees maintain newfound exercise routines?
- Allow flexible working and traveling outside of rush hours when possible.
- Check in with people about their commute and explore alternatives to public transport, such as bikes or car allowances.
- When things go off track, provide a safe space for honest reflection and learning.
- Consider increasing the cadence of 1-on-1 meetings to help employees remain on track. Have open and candid conversations about what has changed and work together to formulate the way forward.
- Reconnect your teams with your organizational mission, values and purpose.
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