Back in March, when work-from-home policies became the new normal, I began planning all I would do during my free time. Without having to battle the terrible commuter traffic in the Bay Area, I figured I would have at least two extra hours each day to exercise or pursue a new hobby.
Now, three months into this new world of work, I find myself working more than ever, quickly filling up those two “spare hours”–but also being more connected than ever. While we have quickly embraced technology that virtually connects dispersed teams, we’ve also found ourselves spending more time with families and redefining work-life integration.
HR professionals used to debate whether organizations could maintain employee productivity in a remote workforce and whether it would actually “work.” I’d say that question has been answered with a resounding “yes!” and I predict that many companies will continue to allow remote work long after the pandemic has passed. But that won’t be the case for all.
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As companies begin to reopen, HR will have to manage a new blended workforce, comprised of remote employees working from home and on-site employees returning to newly re-opened offices (and perhaps some back-and-forth between both).
This new blended workforce will introduce new challenges for HR, having to meet new employee demands and expectations. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, HR leaders will need to develop strategies tailored to all employees, deliver a positive employee experience both virtually and in-person, and enable employee productivity for both a connected and dispersed workforce. Here are a few suggestions on where to begin.
Communicate Clearly, Frequently and Empathetically
Many HR professionals are already prioritizing communication to guide their workforce through the new ways of remote work. And as some employees begin to re-enter the physical workplace, communication will be far more important. Depending on location, different teams may go back and forth between opening and closing—making it even more critical to communicate clearly and often. Remember, employees have no prior experience about what to do or how to behave during a pandemic–and are looking to HR for guidance.
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The way you communicate is as important as what you communicate. Show empathy for the challenges your employees are facing, be understanding and practice humanity. Make sure communication is tailored to employees’ specific needs (i.e. reflective of local guidelines and whether they’re on-site, remote or both). This may require a multi-pronged approach, but a personalized strategy will deliver a positive employee experience for the entire workforce, despite location or access to an on-site office.
Make sure all your employees know:
- The organization’s plan to prioritize workforce health, safety and productivity, while keeping the business running
- HR policies and available resources for dealing with stress or anxiety
- How to access location-specific information and updates around stay-at-home policies, office re-openings and remote work guidelines
Reimagine and Facilitate Work/Life Integration
While the workforce at large has gotten used to the convenience of working from home, it does deliver a different type of employee experience. In remote work settings, employees have the advantage of more family time and a new world of work-life integration. Whereas those who are returning to the office have the advantage of a more professional working environment, a deeper connection to workplace culture and access to proper ergonomics.
Each environment delivers a distinct experience for employees, each with its own pros and cons. But with a blended workforce, it’s important to find balance between both so that the entire workforce feels supported and set up for success. HR leaders should consider different strategies to help blur the lines of location-based perks. For example, for workers who will remain remote, some organizations are offering stipends or support to help employees make home offices workable. HR professionals can also consider offering training on ergonomics for home offices or best practices to handle at-home stressors.
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Alternatively, for those returning to physical offices, HR leaders should prioritize and promote similar work-life integration that the remote workforce is privy to. Flexibility and understanding can go a long way for workers who are adjusting to new workplace demands and returning to work in these unprecedented times.
Lastly, for both on-site and remote employees, HR leaders should encourage regular check-ins. A blended workforce will have to battle against proper collaboration and team connectivity. While some may be able to catch up in-person at the office, others may be relying on Slack or similar tools. Regardless of the tool or method, teams should collaborate regularly and often. This will not only enable a more connected workforce, but it will help boost productivity and build a stronger culture.
Promote Wellness and Mental Health in the Face of Fear and Anxiety
As we continue to adapt to this new way of work, it’s important to remember that all of us are living through an incredibly stressful and volatile time and, quite understandably, employees can’t help bringing their fears to work. HR leaders and managers must be ready to address employee health and safety concerns, prioritize employee wellbeing, and remember that the stressors for on-site workers may be different from those in remote settings. While on-site workers may be concerned about physical safety precautions, remote workers may have concerns over region-specific case spikes or at-home anxiety. Both sets of fears are valid, real and should be addressed.
Be sure to prioritize communication around wellness programs that enable employees to care for their emotional wellbeing as well as their physical health. Many HR professionals have even arranged for guest speakers to share wellness and relaxation techniques, which can be calming and reassuring to the workforce.
Despite best efforts to make the transition as easy as possible, your workforce may still feel overwhelmed or burned out. That level of stress can be detrimental for that employee, his/her team and the organizational overall. Employee burnout can often result in a decrease in productivity, decline in engagement and lack of motivation. If workers are showing signs of this, consider offering time off to recharge. It all goes back to what I said earlier–show empathy, understanding and humanity.
Prepare Employees to Return to the New Workplace
When it’s time for some employees to return to the workplace, HR leaders need to work out the “re-boarding” processes. Keep in mind, you will likely have a split and blended workforce with some employees still working remote. So, be prepared to balance talent management for both a remote workforce and a socially distant in-office team.
Many organizations are making such physical changes to office layouts to maintain social distancing and meet health and safety requirements as staggering arrival times, separating desks and improving office-cleaning procedures. While physical safety measures are critical, we must also have the right technology in place to meet new workforce demands.
With COVID-19, HR leaders now need to track much more data than routine demographic and work information. For instance, organizations should have systems in place that allow them to track and report COVID-19 cases and other health incidents so they can react quickly and minimize exposure to the larger workforce.
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Additionally, HR leaders must stay up-to-date on the growing list of local health and safety regulations. As we’ve all seen, the environment changes almost daily, so HR professionals need to ensure they have a technology in place to provide employees with quick, on-demand access to new information and updates. For example, with updates to stay-at-home orders or office re-openings, HR will need a system to communicate new policies quickly. Digital assistants or chatbots are a great way to keep employees informed and deliver instant answers to commonly asked questions. HR teams can even populate digital assistants with information around COVID-19 updates or location-specific guidelines to help meet employee needs and save time for HR to focus on more strategic priorities.
While it may seem daunting to do double-duty managing a blended remote and on-site workforce, it’s our time to step up–employees worldwide are looking to HR for guidance. And while the “R” in HR traditionally stands for resources, I believe right now it can also stand for resiliency. We HR leaders are more resilient now than we’ve ever been before, and it’s up to us to define what’s next for the workforce of the future.