The pandemic has taught us many things, not the least of which is remote work can be more productive and provide a better work/life balance than in-office work. So, what will happen when employers reopen their offices and employees don’t want to return? How should employers engage with employees who want to keep working remotely? And how should employees who want to keep working remotely engage with employers who want them to return to the office?
To find out the answers to these and other questions on the minds of professionals, managers, and executives across the country, we spoke with Rhiannon Staples, the chief marketing officer of Hibob. Hibob (hi, bob) is the HR technology company behind bob, a cloud-based “people management platform” that helps companies manage, develop, and engage their people. Hibob’s clients include high-growth companies such as Happy Socks, Fiverr, Monzo, Revolut, Gong, and VaynerMedia. Below is an edited version of our conversation with Staples.
Vault: First of all, how are you doing and how have you been managing with all this uncertainty that seems to not want to go away?
Staples: I’m doing fine. And with attention and focus, I’ve been able to successfully pivot to remote work. Despite the obvious challenges we face today, I’ve been prioritizing keeping myself, my team, and my family focused on building resilience and moving forward.
Turning to the issue of office reopenings, what do you think will be employers' biggest challenges when offices begin to reopen in large numbers?
The biggest challenge will be finding a new purpose for the office. Before the pandemic, the office was where most employees came to get their jobs done every day, but since we’ve all been remote for so long—and have grown accustomed to it—the need to go in has changed. Now, employers will have to make the office into a perk or a place that employees want to be—whether that’s by making the office more conducive to in-person collaboration, creating spaces that employees want to work in, or setting up in-office days tied to cultural events that bring teams together. Employees shouldn’t be pushed to go into the physical workspace just because it exists, but because it provides a benefit to them.
How should employers be thinking about remote work?
At Hibob, we believe the future of work is here—and it’s hybrid and remote. Post-pandemic, flexible work policies will be expected by employees. After all, they did it successfully for a year. With that in mind, employers shouldn’t require employees to go back to the way things were. In fact, during the pandemic, Hibob conducted a survey of U.S. workers and found that only 18 percent of people don’t feel productive working remotely, whereas the vast majority are productive working from home. This stat shows that employees are doing well working remotely, and shouldn’t have that option taken away if it can be avoided.
Should companies enact new policies for remote work and remote workers?
Companies don’t need to enact company-wide policies about a potential return-to-work but should allow individual managers to set schedules of if and when people need to come in, giving employees as much flexibility as possible. Every team operates differently, so a one-size-fits-all approach won’t necessarily fit all teams well.
No matter what employers decide about their remote work strategies, what are best practices for communicating with employees? When and what should employers be saying to employees?
Bi-directional communication is key for success. Before policies are even put into place, it's helpful to capture the perspective and position of your employees. Internal surveys can be a helpful tool to use to gauge how employees are feeling. Anonymous surveys of your team—something we offer through the bob platform—can help leaders get insight into what would work well for their people so that they can set up policies that cater to the needs of their businesses and people.
Once a policy is set, transparency in communications is key. Company leaders should make sure they’re explaining plans to employees clearly and succinctly. While a company-wide email with policy details can be helpful, modern workers still value face-time with the organization’s leaders—even if done virtually. Executives may consider holding a staff meeting and sharing policy updates live first, and then providing a breakdown of the strategy in an email afterwards.
Managers and leaders on the “front lines” must also be empowered to communicate policies and expectations with their respective teams, and should set aside time for questions and explain why decisions are made. We’re all still navigating uncharted territory, so it’s important for employees to be able to ask questions and not only understand the “what” behind the decisions being made but also the “why.”
If some employees are reluctant to return to the office—for safety or productivity reasons—how should employers handle this?
Employers should never require employees to do anything that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Today we’re still facing similar health risks and personal challenges (childcare, elder care, etc.) as we were at the start of the pandemic. It's imperative that employers focus on the safety of their employees above all else. Employees should also be encouraged to speak to their managers about concerns and feel confident that their voices will be heard and respected.
The question employers must ask themselves is how they can make the office a place that employees want to return to, rather than be forced to return to. Attrition, low employee satisfaction and morale, damaged employer brand—forcing the issue could have negative outcomes for the business. Businesses should instead focus on building a culture where employees feel safe returning to the office and see value in being in the office so that they might voluntarily return on mutually agreeable terms, rather than being forced. This kind of flexibility is the “new normal.”
If you’re an employee and want to keep working remotely when your office reopens, how should you approach your manager and what should you say or do?
Set aside time with your manager to connect one-on-one and be transparent about how you’re feeling. Make sure you can communicate that you feel productive working remotely, share examples of how you’ve excelled in the remote work environment, and come with solutions about how a flexible schedule or remote setup could work for you long term, if that’s not the plan as a company-wide policy.
Is there anything else important for employers or employees to know about this issue that I didn’t ask?
A year-plus of remote work for many organizations has proven to have a positive impact on the bottom lines of companies and the wellbeing of employees. But it isn’t for everyone, or every business. I encourage employers to dig deep to understand what this year has taught them about culture, productivity, and engagement. What has worked well? What still needs investment? Employers with the ability to create a strong and effective hybrid strategy have much to gain. However, hybrid is not remote, and it's not in-office—it's in between. Developing policies, enablement, training, and culture that speaks to all your employees—remote, in-office, and somewhere in between—gives businesses a competitive edge in attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent.
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