Returning In-Person, Staying Remote, or Going Hybrid? Succeed With These Tips

7 minutes • Sep 13, 2021Culture

After more than 18 months of working from our homes, the great office reopening is underway. We know the future of work is hybrid, (people working from both the office and from their homes) but it’s not as simple as just telling your people to take their pick. 

Employee Feedback is More Important than Ever

As you and other company leaders decide your next steps, it’s a good idea to gauge how employees are feeling (for instance, with an employee engagement survey) to ensure that the way you choose to move forward aligns with what employees need and want. According to recent data on American workers from Morning Consult

  • 63% of current remote workers would feel comfortable going back to the office 

  • 77% of current remote workers like to keep working remotely 

  • 46% of Americans would be comfortable with domestic travel 

However, your actual employees might feel differently. There are additional factors that will tip the scales in favor of one direction over the rest, including: 

  • The industry your company operates in 

  • Your company’s current financial situation 

  • Your company’s long-term goals 

No matter what decision your company ends up making, it’s crucial to gather employee input, remain transparent with your employees, update policies and procedures, create and present a company-wide action plan, keep a pulse on engagement, and provide the right tools for your people to work asynchronously. 

The stakes are high because talent is scarce. If your employees don’t feel you have their best interest at the heart of your decision making, you could lose your top performers. 

Returning In-Person 

Many companies have decided to pick up where things left off in early March 2020, deciding that nothing beats in-person collaboration. However, this is a tricky transition, given that many workers don’t want to return to the office full-time. If you must return to the office, you can help your people feel more comfortable with these tips:

Give Employees a Clear Transition Plan—and Ease Their Worries 

Your people have been working from home for over a year. Suddenly having to return to the office will feel abrupt and disruptive. To make that switch easier, you and your team should consider sending a pulse survey asking what every person’s #1 concern is. 

After analyzing the results, find the most common theme. Maybe the #1 concern was around social distancing, especially in conference rooms. Your solution could be to provide free masks, hand sanitizer, and an aggressive wipe down of the room after each meeting.

Once you can identify a main concern from a pulse survey that your company can solve for, add it to your return to work presentation aligned with local guidelines for your next All-Hands. Sharing the #1 concern from the pulse survey to the entire company shows leadership’s willingness to be transparent and find creative solutions to keep everyone safe (and engaged!) 

The plan should address exactly when everyone will have to start commuting to the office. SHRM recommends implementing a gradual return to the office—for instance, by dividing employees into groups and having them come in during different days of the week. 

The transition plan should also touch on any other concerns uncovered in the pulse survey. Many employees are understandably anxious about returning to the office so to ease their worries, here are a few other factors you could address: 

  • How the company will approach the return of any unvaccinated employees

  • What mental health resources you’ll offer

  • Whether or not you’ll require employees to wear masks

  • What limits you’ll place on the number of people in one room at once 

  • What kind of exemptions and flexibility you’ll offer employees 

Once you create the transition plan, be sure to give employees ample time to read it over and process it. You can’t announce a return to the office on a Friday and expect everyone to get with the program the following Monday. Give them an opportunity to voice their thoughts and implement their feedback where appropriate. For example, if some employees voice that the “return-to-office” date is too soon for them (due to needing more time to say, make childcare arrangements), work with them individually to develop a plan that fits their needs. 

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Establish Work-from-Home Guidelines 

Hand-in-hand with the transition plan is establishing work-from-guidelines moving forward. Even though workers will be returning to the office, some situations will make work-from-home necessary, such as when an employee is sick, has to take care of an ill loved one, or needs to oversee a home repair. 

Here are some factors you should consider when determining those guidelines: 

  • How should employees who need to work from home inform the team (for instance, by sending their manager a Slack message or setting a

    in Pingboard)? 

  • What are the expectations around communication for employees when they’re working from home? 

  • What tools and resources will you provide employees who need to work from home? 

After you establish these guidelines, share them with your employees and let them know that it’s ok if they need to work from home. Stress that if they feel sick or have a personal matter they need to tend to, the company won’t expect them to trek to the office that day. 

Restructure the Office Layout As Needed 

Many offices are getting makeovers to meet the changed, new world we’re in. Depending on your current office layout, you might decide to pandemic-proof it. For example, if employees already have their own closed-door offices, you probably won’t have to make any changes. But if your office has an open floor plan, you might decide to make clear markings of 6 feet around each desk to make it easier for people to remember social distancing. 

In addition to adjusting your office’s layout, you should also consider adding (or asking your building owner if they could provide) extra sanitation measures, such as more hand sanitizer bottles and air filtration systems that use UV light.

Staying Fully Remote 

If your teams have experienced a more efficient output (most companies did!) then you may choose to end your office lease and let the asynchronous work continue. Finding more efficiency while remote is a huge win-- companies who revert back to “the old way” show that they don’t believe in the innovation and ingenuity of their people (and it’s not great for engagement!) 

Here are some tips should you decide to permanently stay remote: 

Revamp Culture-Building Efforts 

Look back at how you got your team to build bonds the past year and counting. Perhaps you held virtual karaoke nights or daily informal Zoom chats. However, now that your company is going fully remote, you should give those community-building efforts a refresh, too. 

Specifically, consider holding in-person company retreats annually, once a quarter, or on another schedule that makes sense. This is a tradition at some fully remote companies, like Zapier and Buffer. These retreats bring employees together, helping them put a face to each name they see pop up on their emails and Slack messages. You could also hold smaller department retreats throughout the year. 

Revisit Workflows and Processes to Keep Employee Burnout at Bay 

When your company was thrown into the world of remote work last year, you had to put together contingency plans for getting work done. Now that your company is intentionally choosing to remain remote, those workflows and processes might need a refresh. Efficiency could also be a lagging indicator of burnout, make sure your managers know how to identify all the types of burnout by asking the right questions in their 1:1s. 

You can make specific changes to keep employee burnout at bay, including: 

  • Holding fewer meetings 

  • Making “video on” optional 

  • Expanding mental health support 

  • Creating employee growth initiatives (such as a mentorship program or career mapping exercises) 

    Provide Clear Policies on Moving and Travel 

One of the best perks of remote work is the ability to move and travel because you’re no longer tethered to one spot. However, your company should think through the nuances of what that freedom entails and decide whether or not to place any limits on it. 

For example, an employee who wants to move from one coast to another will only be a few hours ahead or behind the rest of the team, but an employee who wants to move to a different continent? The vast time zone difference will make it extremely tough for that employee to attend meetings. So, you and the rest of the leadership team might decide to implement a policy where employees who want to relocate, say, out of the country, will have to discuss it with their manager first and come up with a plan to make asynchronous collaboration work. 

Adopting the Hybrid Model 

With a hybrid model, you get the best of both worlds—Asynchronous and in-person collaboration. Here are some steps to ensure success. 

Outline a Clear Hybrid Model 

There are different types of hybrid work models. Arguably, the most typical hybrid work model involves some employees staying remote and some employees commuting to the office. Another type of hybrid work model has employees rotating between working from home and commuting to the office, perhaps following a “split week” schedule. Some companies might adopt a combination of these two approaches. 

As your weighing these approaches, here are a few questions to ask yourself: 

  • Will employees get to pick if they can stay remote or come on-site? 

  • If you go with a split-week schedule, how will you delegate “in-office” days to employees? 

  • How will you establish lines of communication between remote and onsite employees? 

Thinking through the answers to these questions will help you avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of the hybrid work model: the “two-class” system. 

Avoid the “Two-Class System” 

In the context of a hybrid work model, a “two-class” system is where management views employees who show up in person more favorably than those who work from home. Unfortunately, this can quickly create a toxic work culture. 

Some companies, like GitLab, won’t even entertain the hybrid model for this reason, instead opting for a fully remote model. However, that doesn’t mean your company should automatically shy away from that route. For example, Zillow is adopting a hybrid work model. In a recent earnings call, Zillow’s CEO stressed that there “cannot be a two-class system” and that the company must “ensure a level playing field for all team members.” 

To safeguard against a two-class system, you can take several steps, including: 

  • Creating a culture that emphasizes results, not hours logged 

  • Running meetings in a way that works for both in-person and remote employees

  • Accepting hybrid work at all levels of the company

Establish Expectations and Boundaries Around Communication  

Another essential way to combat a two-class system and operate a successful hybrid work model is by establishing expectations around communication.

According to SHRM, remote workers can slip into working longer hours. A 2020 survey by staffing Robert Half found that 45% of remote employees said they regularly work more than eight hours a day. On the flip side, onsite workers have a more clear delineation between work and home time, by virtue of physically closing your laptop and leaving the office. 

By creating and upholding boundaries around communication, you can help level the playing field for remote workers and in-office workers, so that remote workers don’t feel pressured to respond around the clock to “keep up.” Here’s what some of those boundaries could look like: 

  • Encouraging remote workers to set a “log off” time and stick to it 

  • Determining each employee’s preferred communication method, and adding it to their

  • Utilize

    time models for certain projects 

Other General Guidelines 

Regardless of which of the three models works best for your organization, you should always be evaluating your overall employee experience. Namely, creating an engaging preboarding process, regularly surveying employees, being transparent with feedback from the surveys, and finding ways to keep your employees connected. In addition, keep up with changing policies, procedures, and offered benefits as time goes on and circumstances change. 

No matter which model works for your organization, the key is to make your people feel informed, and that their feedback is being taken seriously. Being as transparent is your swiss-army knife to make sure everyone feels safe and that their work matters. Never Underestimate the power of a well-thought-out All-Hands or your managers in a 1:1 setting with each employee. 

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