Planning the future of your workplace: Six things for HR to consider

Author: Gemma Dale

The scale and duration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the enforced shift to home-based working has led many organisations to think about the future of the workplace and a move towards a hybrid or blended working model. Gemma Dale takes us through six areas for HR to consider as part of its planning process.

With national restrictions continuing to be lifted throughout the UK, organisations are starting to consider a return to the workplace. For some, this will include the implementation of new working models, including hybrid or blended working where employees are based partly remotely and partly in the workplace. Others will be continuing with an entirely remote workforce. Specifically, though, HR is keen to draw on the lessons learned from the period of enforced homeworking to ensure that any new models are fit for purpose.

And, while hybrid working will be a significant area of interest in the months to come, it is not the only area that needs HR's attention. All new post-pandemic workplace strategies will need to include an increased focus on wellbeing, the practicalities of the return to the workplace and employee engagement, as well as addressing the implications of new working models on traditional HR activity.

Hybrid working is at an early stage and there are few precedents to follow - each organisation will need to consider what it means for them and their circumstances. However, maintaining an agile approach to developing and refining plans will ensure a model with the best fit. The following are all areas that HR needs to focus on as strategies are being developed.

1. Determining the overall approach

There is no single best-practice approach to remote or hybrid working, as models will vary according to the individual's role, the organisation or the industry in which it operates. Treat the months to come as a time for careful consideration and review, rather than for fixed decisions. The following will help determine the most suitable approach, while encouraging ongoing engagement with the process from all employees and people managers:

  • Where one has not already been undertaken, conduct a listening exercise with employees to seek feedback on future working preferences - this could include surveys or smaller focus groups.
  • Share with employees what new ways of working are under consideration, with clear timescales for providing more information.
  • Engage with people managers now to understand their concerns and any questions they have, identify their training and development needs, and begin to establish understanding and buy-in.
  • Identify a mechanism for feedback, as well as ways to measure success and to identify problems that arise as new models are implemented.

The working models need to be clearly defined, and any new approaches that your organisation wishes to introduce should be clearly explained. Senior leaders, with advice and insight from HR, will need to do the following:

  • Develop a policy or principles document that sets out the organisation's position on new ways of working - initially this should be identified as an interim approach, to ensure that any necessary changes or revisions to the plans can be introduced.
  • Determine eligibility for hybrid and remote working. There will be some roles that will not be suitable for hybrid or remote work, so to ensure clarity and fairness, there should be clear explanations behind these decisions.
  • Set out the roles and responsibilities of both hybrid or remote workers, and their managers.  This should include areas such as data protection, health and safety, appropriate workstations and general expectations.

Employees and managers should be clear on what forms of flexible work are available to them, how they can apply for them, any implications on their terms and conditions, and what is expected of them in real terms.

2. Focusing on short- and long-term employee wellbeing

There are several wellbeing considerations that can be separated into immediate priorities and longer-term requirements. The pandemic has led to what the mental health charity Mind has called "a mental health emergency", with increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Employees may have specific anxieties about the return to the workplace, including the use of public transport. In addition, according to the ONS, more than one million people in the UK were experiencing symptoms of "long COVID" up to the end of March 2021, a new and largely unknown condition. To address the immediate wellbeing priorities, organisations should:

  • provide regular, specific information to employees about workplace safety and hygiene protocols, reassuring them and offering a facility for questions and answers;
  • remind employees about internal support services such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and the occupational health department;
  • review related policies and adapt them, where necessary, to reflect current circumstances (including, for example, absence management policies, to take into account the nature of "long COVID"); and
  • provide guidance and training to people managers on supporting employees with long-term health conditions (including making reasonable adjustments) and supporting employees experiencing poor mental health.

Longer-term strategies are also required to support staff with health issues - the full mental health implications of the pandemic are just beginning to be revealed but we can expect that they will last for some time, and most likely outlast the restrictions on daily life.

Where organisations are considering hybrid or permanent remote working, strategies are required to mitigate the specific health implications that may result. Outcomes can be centred around three main employee types:

  • those who were able to use homeworking to boost their wellbeing, channelling unused commuting time into activities that supported their wellbeing;
  • those for whom flexible work led to work extensification (working longer hours) and intensification (working harder), as well as more domestic labour; and
  • those for whom homeworking resulted in reduced boundaries and blurring of the lines between work and home, which has led to wellbeing concerns and issues.

Lockdown brought its own challenges, including the recognised fatigue from excessive online or video meetings. However, there are lots of areas that HR can provide specific training in to avoid or minimise the negative effects of hybrid or fully remote working.

The message to employees - whether based in the workplace or remotely - about maintaining effective work-life balance, and the importance of routine and working hours that fit with an agreed work pattern, should be clear, frequent and consistent. Alongside this, employees should be encouraged to build healthy homeworking habits, develop healthy digital wellbeing and consciously disconnect when not working. People managers should be trained in the wellbeing implications of remote and hybrid work so that they can support employees.

3. Ensuring employee engagement exercises are fit for purpose

Many employees have continued to work throughout the pandemic, often under stress and coping with ongoing and challenging change, and sometimes also becoming remote workers overnight. Others have spent time on furlough with reduced contact with their organisation. Quite simply, the way and place of work changed fundamentally and employers who do not engage with this will face an engagement crisis among employees. Those employers who can show they have listened to employees and, as a result, will offer hybrid and remote working opportunities, will provide employees with choice and autonomy - making for a powerful employer proposition.

Employee engagement is affected by a range of factors including how employees are managed and led, how they are listened to, what their job looks like, organisational culture and the employee's own psychological state. Longer-term engagement strategies can leverage new models of working to drive engagement. Consideration should be given to:

  • reassessing current engagement strategies to determine whether they remain fit for purpose;
  • maintaining connection with the organisation's vision, mission and purpose, and sharing plans for the future;
  • checking in with employees regularly to measure engagement, particularly in relation to new models of work and how employees feel about them;
  • ensuring a visible leadership team with a strong narrative about the organisation post-pandemic;
  • connecting people with each other and with the organisation; and
  • focusing on the entire employee experience, ensuring it is fit for a hybrid and remote world.

4. Adapting assessment in performance management

Traditionally, performance management processes involve formal performance reviews, setting of objectives and the provision of feedback. These fundamentals are not changed by a move to remote or hybrid working, as these activities can be undertaken effectively face-to-face or online. However, the assessment of performance can be more challenging and the effectiveness of these processes becomes even more crucial.

Performance management in remote and hybrid teams places a greater reliance on assessment of contribution, values, results and outcomes rather than presence or observable behaviours. There is a real risk that unconscious biases lead to managers favouring employees who are physically in the office more regularly or being overly influenced by observable performance. This risk can be avoided by:

  • undertaking training on effective performance management, including how to assess performance of remote and hybrid teams, and the potential for unconscious bias;
  • ensuring that all employees have up-to-date objectives that include measurements of success, to facilitate effective performance assessment; and
  • encouraging managers to have regular one-to-ones with their teams, whether face to face or online, as regular dialogue becomes critical when there is reduced face-to-face contact.

In a remote or hybrid model of work, it is even more important than usual to address performance concerns promptly, as they will rarely resolve themselves without intervention.

5. Developing effective collaboration and team-working workflows

Collaboration, strong communication and effective team working are central to the success of hybrid and remote working. Each of these elements can be facilitated through technology, with the particular platform used less important than the establishment of effective practices. Communication and collaboration should be seen as a shared responsibility, where each team member plays a role in its success. Collaboration will include decisions about when and why teams come together.

This is another area where there is not one uniform approach for all teams, so HR should work with people managers to identify different criteria for meetings or gatherings, recognising the needs of the business and the individual circumstances within the team. The most effective solutions will empower teams to consider these areas for themselves and agree norms that fit their context. Teams should avoid, where possible, meetings where some members attend virtually and others attend in person, thus minimising presence disparity. Instead, if one member of the team is remote, if possible, all team members should attend the meeting virtually. HR can help teams to:

  • determine the most effective technology for team communications;
  • decide how often to meet, in what form and for what purpose;
  • ensure that communication is always inclusive;
  • experiment with different solutions to find the best ways to collaborate and work together effectively; and
  • train managers in developing the necessary skills for collaborating and leading hybrid and remote teams.

6. Managing the employee lifecycle

When working in a hybrid or remote way, many elements of the employee lifecycle are altered to some extent. Activities are not necessarily more difficult but do need to be considered and adapted to ensure that processes are optimised when people are not continually in the office. Recommendations for various stages are set out below.

Recruitment

Research suggests that organisations who advertise flexible working opportunities receive more applications, so opportunities for remote or hybrid working should be included in adverts and managers should be equipped to have conversations with candidates at any stage in the recruitment process. The predicted future demand for flexible working will mean that flexible working policies form a critical part of the employer brand. When managing remote recruitment, the same principles around candidate relationship management need to be maintained albeit on a virtual platform.

Induction

Many employees started new roles during the pandemic and have never worked at or even visited their offices, nor met colleagues in person. When a safe return to the workplace is possible, employers should pay attention to their needs. While they are not technically a new starter, they may need support in getting to know the workplace and filling any knowledge gaps. Longer term, HR needs to develop (and train managers in) revised induction processes taking into account new working patterns. This should include information on any policies or local team practices/norms regarding hybrid and remote working, ensuring that equipment to facilitate working is available promptly, and access to all shared online spaces or groups. As well as this, it is important to build in sufficient time with people in the team - online or face-to-face.

Learning and development

The pandemic has not only escalated remote work but also remote learning. Courses moved online and blended approaches have, to some extent, replaced long days in a classroom-style environment. Hybrid working demands hybrid learning - the opportunity for learners to engage with activities both in person and online or in their own time, providing learners with more choice and autonomy. Specific strategies will be required, and potentially new resources and technology.

Reward and recognition

Whatever forms of reward and recognition an organisation chooses, it is imperative that they are demonstrably fair and inclusive, otherwise they can become demotivating or counterproductive. A shift to remote or hybrid working may not necessitate different forms of reward or recognition, but schemes should be examined to ensure that all employees are treated fairly, regardless of how much time they spend in the office, and employees who are in the office in person more often are not disproportionately rewarded for presenteeism.

Review, review, review

Finally, as organisations collectively learn how these new models will work and as good practice emerges, HR and business leaders must remain open to new ideas, research and learning from their own experiences and people. Taking an agile approach is key to the success of new working models.