Who remembers the anticipation (and dread) of returning to school at the end of summer?
You definitely looked forward to certain aspects. Getting to see all your friends again, everyone’s summer stories, all the things that can’t be replicated when everyone is apart. There’s also parts that made you nervous… that one Calculus class, having to wake up early to make it to school on time.
These last 18 months have by no means been a summer vacation for your employees. But similar to those same grade school feelings, everyone’s anticipating the return to the workplace and the range of responses are wide and varied.
With some groups of employees feeling strongly about remaining remote and others looking forward to a return to the office, HR leaders are feeling pressure on both sides of the aisle.
All roads are leading to a hybrid work environment. However, HR leaders have much to determine around the framework and execution of the hybrid workplace model, and organizational leaders have big decisions ahead of them.
In order to provide some guidance during this transition, we sat down this past week for a discussion on how to navigate and prepare for the hybrid workplace with:
- Amy Roy, Chief People Officer, Namely
- Larry Dunivan, CEO, Namely
- Kevin Yip, COO, Blueboard
Check out the full recording of the webinar below, and keep reading for a practical guide on how to approach the return to a hybrid workforce.
What will the hybrid workplace look like?
We opened up the webinar with an audience poll where we asked: “What will your workplace realistically look like in the next six months?”
Our poll results revealed that over 70% of the audience is heading towards a hybrid workplace or remote environment, with 13% still deciding what they are going to do. With so many of us in the process of this transition, organizations are searching for a simple, step-by-step process. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions.
As we learned from our panelists, keeping your employees’ health and wellbeing are the absolute priority. And in order to deliver on these priorities, employee morale, equity, and connection are going to be your north stars when evaluating your existing efforts and people programs, and considering what needs to be adapted for the future.
Let’s dive into what you need to be prepared for and what to do when you get there.
Planning your return to the office.
If you’re going to ask your employees how they feel about returning to work, now is the time to do so.
Our panelists provided some great feedback from their own experience for how to frame your questions and what the intent of these surveys should be to gauge employee morale.
First off, these surveys are a learning opportunity for organizations.
- What can we learn from the ‘work from home’ experience, both positive and negative, so that we can apply those findings to building a future state that meets employee needs?
Here are the most valuable questions our teams at Namely and Blueboard have used in return to work survey efforts:
- What issues or concerns are top of mind for you as you consider returning to the office? (Please feel free to include factors not strictly in the office such as, childcare, commute, access to food, etc.)
- What actions would you like to see [company] take so that you could feel comfortable returning to the office?
- Would your answer change if you knew other people were going to come in? If so, how.
- What comments can you share regarding your decision-making process?
These questions are a great place to start when trying to directly address the hurdles that your employees might face and to generate ideas around return to work that might be motivating and reassuring for them. If you have the bandwidth to read, keep these open-ended for more color into what your employees are feeling. And if you want deeper insights, consider building a focus group with a small group of employees who represent a variety of employee profiles (from parents to single employees, urban vs. suburban commuters).
Challenges to anticipate when surveying for return to work or creating a hybrid workplace.
As employee surveys return, certain challenges are being revealed. The biggest challenges that companies have to be prepared for are:
- Competing preferences: There are two groups forming in the employee ranks, and each feels strongly about their choice: those who can’t wait to come back and those who are dreading it.
- Competition - Can you mandate going back? Sure. But as Larry from Namely pointed out, if you want to be an employer of choice, and you have people who don’t want to work in an office again, you’ll probably lose them to a company that’s more flexible.
- Separate work populations - With groups of employees working from a range of different locations, there’s a growing concern that cliques will form.
Who moved my cheese!?
In the midst of the panelist’s conversation about these surfacing challenges, Larry earnestly exclaimed: “The cheese has moved!”
Referencing the famous parable written by Spencer James, Larry was invoking the poignant message in the parable that “change is inevitable.”
And in doing so, Larry was making a clear and bold statement to the audience: These trends and changes in how we imagine where work happens, are here to stay.
And now that the cheese has moved, it’s time for your organization to adapt.
Time for your organization to adapt!
The companies that are going to be most successful in making the transition back to the office are the ones that will maintain employee morale, prioritize equity, and continue building employee connection.
As our very own Kevin Yip pointed out, “If you're going to pack anything along for this ride, it better be morale, equity, and employee connection.”
For each of these outcomes, there are levers and tools at your disposal to address the challenges with the transition to a hybrid workplace. Let’s dive into what these are and how to best leverage them:
Do your best to build positive employee morale.
The best place to start is with your engagement surveys. Keep a pulse check on feelings of employee morale and where people are feeling most engaged. If you already have some areas where people are feeling disengaged, that might be more exacerbated as you return. Start there before you dig into “where are we going with the office.”
The most relevant ways to spark morale right now is through social interaction, collaboration, and clear communication.
These are the biggest missing pieces in regards to remote work, hence they’re what people are craving most. The way people stay engaged hasn’t changed. But when planning for a hybrid workplace environment, our programs need to be reimagined. .
What are your levers?
As Larry pointed out, flexibility isn’t going to just be a perk that you consider offering. It’s going to be mandatory if you want to compete with other companies for top talent.
- Help self regulate
Amy shared that with the switch to remote work, people’s regulators have gone haywire. The pandemic has made it a real challenge for employees to self regulate and not work extended out-of-work hours. To combat this problem and increase employee morale, try implementing no meeting days, extra holidays, or company-wide days off to support mental health and the other personal responsibilities that often pile up at home. Taking a shared day off means no distracting dings or notifications, and helps teams take a collective exhale, together.
- Redefine the office experience
To recapture the missing pieces of social interaction and collaboration, Kevin talked about crafting an optimal office experience, wherever your employees are. Provide tools and platforms that allow employees to interact, build relationships, and connect with their co-workers (hint, Blueboard rewards that help connect through shared experiences).
There will also be a change in how physical structures and office layouts will be used for collaboration. In-person meetings might be reserved for brainstorming sessions, introducing new projects, or team-building exercises, while remote days would be for work that can be performed individually. Reimagine your traditional office spaces and arrange them for more collaborative meeting spaces to maximize the time people spend in-person.
Prioritize employee equity, regardless of location.
This is a “can’t miss” for companies. Not prioritizing employee equity is a huge risk, and Leadership needs to intentionally evaluate “are we being sensitive to everyone’s needs.”
It starts with transparency. Prioritizing inclusion and belonging through this process means understanding everyone’s needs are different. Your old programs and habits won't translate to a remote or a hybrid workplace. Everything needs to be reassessed to ensure the way we do business creates equity for all.
What are your levers?
- Root your company mission and values
If you can’t operate under one umbrella, a common truth or stance, there will be no purpose or mission your people can feel attached to. Revisit your mission and ask if it’s still relevant and reflective of what your company stands for.. Needs are unique and different during this time, and that’s okay! Evaluate if your values as a company celebrate that.
- Align HR and Leadership
When these two groups are not aligned, it’s a disaster to company culture. Conversations need to be proactive between these groups. These teams need to be united and communicate openly with the rest of the company around the return to work decisions being made.
- Foster an inclusive culture
If you don’t have them already, set up ERG’s (Employee Resource Groups) for continued employee dialogue and connection. ERGs serve as a safe haven for those with perspectives and experiences that are diverse compared to the company as a whole. Use these groups to get feedback and guidance for your policies and programs during this transition. At its root, they serve as a community of support for those feeling unrepresented.
- The way that we communicate
From your company’s leadership team to individual team leads, and everyone in between, a positive hybrid workplace experience begins with effective communication. When making the transition to a more hybrid workplace, enable methods of communication that advocate inclusivity and employee equity. Consider the experience of remote employees, and enable them to make work, work for them in the same way you do for those in the workplace.
If even one person is remote, everyone should be on Zoom. Poor audio and connection delays are technical issues that can make it even harder to communicate effectively. Make sure audio and other tech are up to snuff for your employees so that you can create an environment that is ripe for collaboration and idea-sharing.
Build connections among your employees.
Building connection starts with manager training. Amy pointed out that manager training for the hybrid workforce is going to be huge - they need to be more aware of what’s going on with their teams and learn how to be the best advocate for their changing needs.
It’s all about finding ways to remain equitable in giving recognition, promotions and raises when some employees are physically in the office and others are not.
What are your levers?
- Cultivate a culture of recognition
In the context of a hybrid workplace, managers and leaders need to be more vocal and comfortable with celebrating people now, more than ever.
Tactically, that can look like values-based spot recognition, giving peer-driven shoutouts at a company all-hands (or any cross-functional setting), or rewards to celebrate those employees serving as culture champions, helping to keep morale alive and thriving as you make this transition.
Value-based recognition is a powerful lever to pull because it can either be peer-nominated, or manager-nominated (showing employees that across the board, people see and value their contributions). The advantage of value awards is that the measuring stick is the same for everyone. From the hourly employee, the exec, fully remote, or in the office, anyone can bring your company values to life and create an impact across your broader organization.
If you’re looking for creative ways to reward employees living your values, browse our menu of experiential rewards.
- Performance management
Unconscious bias will need to be taken seriously, given as humans, it’s in our nature to favor in-person relationships that can lead to deeper personal connections. On the topic of training, make sure your managers are equipped to avoid bias when making decisions around salary increases, transfers or promotions when managing a hybrid workforce or remote teams. Consider bringing in external trainers, like our friends at ReadySet, or leading your own internal training or discussion groups to get teams on the same page.
And keep in mind that for a hybrid workplace, traditional, one-size-fits-all measurements for productivity are no longer effective in certain jobs or roles. It won’t be possible to see Larry working late, or taking a long lunch when they’re away at home. These are important factors for managers to keep in mind when evaluating performance.
Amy shared how at Namely, they reexamined their performance management process to ensure it wasn’t one manager making a decision at home in a vacuum. Listen, approach with empathy, and have feedback conversations quickly and frequently when something isn’t going well.
Bringing it all together.
Prioritizing employee morale, equity, and connection are all ingredients for a successful return to office plan. When creating your plan, listen to your employees, know what tools are available for you, and begin experimenting with the levers that are most relevant.
A great place to start (and where we can help at Blueboard) is making your employee recognition programs exciting, equitable, and relevant in light of all these changes.
Blueboard rewards offer employees the power of choice
(flexibility) and allow employees to be holistically seen and valued for the impact they’re making (building employee morale). And with rewards across the US and in +70 countries, we meet employees wherever they are (creating a consistent and equitable recognition experience for all). From in-home experiences like building a backyard greenhouse to watercolor painting lessons, or out in the world adventures like learning to kitesurf, there’s a reward for every employee’s personal comfort level and interests/passions.
As Amy pointed out, this whole situation is like “a rollercoaster that has not stopped.” The conversation around hybrid work will continue to evolve. This is uncharted territory. Make sure to give yourself some grace, this isn’t easy stuff.
If you are looking for employee reward options that can fit the demands and changes in the workforce, request a personalized demo with our Blueboard team.