Hybrid working has become a hot topic of debate – with valid arguments on both sides. On one hand, employees are hesitant to give up the better work-life balance many experienced during lockdown; on the other, employers worry how long-term remote work will impact business operations and service delivery.
So how can HR leaders maintain productivity – while also ensuring a great employee experience for both in-office and remote workers?
I recently discussed this topic with two experts in their field: Mairead Coughlan, Senior HR Shared Services Director at Dell, who manages an HR support team for 130,000 employees worldwide, and Natalie O’Neill, Global Employee Services Lead and Global Process Owner at Kerry Group who has over a decade of experience in designing and optimising people-centric processes to enable employees to be at their best.
Here’s what they recommended.
1. Embrace new working patterns
The rapid shift to remote work was tough on all of us. But from an HR point of view, it wasn’t necessarily employees who found it most difficult to adjust, but business leaders.
“From the start of lockdown, managers worried about how to lead in a virtual environment,” says Mairead. “And with employees needing flexibility to accommodate personal matters, such as childcare and remote schooling, managers had to simply trust that work would get done.”
Many found themselves struggling to adapt to this new environment, and it became clear that support was needed for leaders to build trust and connect with employees on a more personal level.
From Natalie’s experience, online leadership training was essential in helping managers learn how to lead a remote workforce – and it also created a community for sharing advice.
“It was crucial in helping managers get over those barriers. And it was well worth it! We’ve seen improved collaboration across the company, as it suddenly became so easy to reach out and connect with others in the same boat.”
It’s worth getting this right: companies who succeeded in creating a more flexible working environment and trusted their workforce saw greater agility and innovation as a result – and employees were happier, healthier, and more productive for it too.
2. Ensure employee wellbeing
Work is no longer about where you get things done, but how.
Getting work done well, however, requires constant interaction between leaders and employees, and according to Natalie, it’s up to management to watch out for employees’ wellbeing and ensure a continuous positive experience – especially as organisations shift to hybrid working.
“Many believe that employee wellbeing is an HR thing, but it has nothing to do with HR. Wellbeing has to be leader-led, so how do you get our leaders to understand the key role they play?”
Increasingly, those leaders must consider every aspect of the employee experience – from the moment a recruit signs on, right through to when they leave the company – or risk alienating employees and forcing them to seek greener pastures.
According to Mairead, “What’s critical is getting managers to focus less on numbers and more on their employees’ wellbeing: asking how they are, holding regular check-up meetings, and showing appreciation.”
Natalie agrees. “It’s not just about making employees happy, but also keeping them well. If they’re physically or mentally struggling, they’re not going to deliver.”
While it’s harder to engage with employees when managers don’t have a constant line of sight, managers can make it work if they set and communicate clear expectations, try to consciously drive culture, and create opportunities for employees to be innovative – and that includes redefining the office space.
3. Rethink the office
Going forward, people want to work differently – and offices need to reflect this. But how can businesses get the balance right?
“Listening to what people want is critical. This is a great opportunity to strike a balance between creating a collaborative and safe office environment and an engaged, connected remote-working experience,” says Natalie.
While it may seem easiest just to revert to the status quo and get all your employees back into the office, many are unlikely to be inspired by a return-to-work strategy that fails to build on lessons learned during the pandemic – not least that some work is better done at home.
Mairead agrees that different work requires different spaces. “It’s critical to ensure that when offices do reopen, employers have a better office space that encourages a new way of working where people can come and collaborate and co-create – instead of doing work they could easily do at home.”
Creating a safe solution that works best for a given business will require a clear understanding of who needs to be in the office and how the space will be used when they’re there.
When backed with the right digital technology, employees can then enjoy a seamless experience across home and office that sees productivity increase in both.
That’s the key argument for hybrid working, according to Natalie, “After all, if employees can work just as efficiently at home as in the office, we’d be crazy to go back to how it was before, wouldn’t we?”
If you’ve got a few more minutes to spare, why not watch my full discussion with Mairead and Natalie here.