In 2023, scores of employers around the globe called workers back to the office as the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared over—and the promise of workplace flexibility quickly became accepted as a best practice to lure back at-home workers and recruit new talent.
However, after many organizations struggled to actually get workers back in the office, the pendulum may swing a bit in the other direction this year, with more organizations making “flexibility less flexible,” predicts Hannah Yardley, chief people and culture officer at employee recognition software provider Achievers.
Take Achievers, for example. Earlier this month, the organization, which employs more than 500 people, finalized its “colocation strategy,” which requires employees to report to company hubs on two set days a week. Yardley says the strategy was necessary after Achievers’ hybrid work arrangement meant some workers were coming in on days when their colleagues weren’t present. That lack of consistent, in-person collaboration posed a real threat to the development of employees and the “opportunities for creativity and growth” of the business, Yardley says.
Now, standard “anchor days” will be used for intentional, collaborative work, an approach that Yardley says will enhance innovation while still enabling the workforce to take advantage of the various other dimensions of workplace flexibility Achievers offers. She recently shared with HRE her outlook on flexibility in 2024:
HRE: What led to the need for the colocation strategy?
Yardley: We were struggling with flexibility being too flexible—that when people had a choice, they were potentially not coming into the office or missing moments to connect with their colleagues. Our cross-functional collaboration scores were continuing to decline as were development scores, and we felt we needed to make a decision about how and where we can enable those things. And we felt colocation was the best place to engage with employees.
We want to be colocating on the same days so we can garner all of those benefits of what being in the office together means. When it’s not defined, we miss the moments as a team of coming together where everybody knows who’s going to be there. So, setting two anchor days where we can hold town halls and rewards and recognition ceremonies, that’s really important to us. Not defining those anchor days would mean that you’re never quite sure which colleagues will be [in the office]. You may have sensitive topics to talk about and not know who will be there. The purpose [of in-office days] is to be together and, if not everyone is there together, that defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to achieve.
HRE: What has employee feedback been like?
Yardley: The vast majority felt empowered to return [to the office] and were able to see the benefits of that off the bat. However, we had about a quarter of the population that we needed to do a lot of work with to help understand and identify the benefits of what colocation may mean to them. The way we approached that was by showing what workplace flexibility still means.
Colocation doesn’t mean you’re losing workplace flexibility. It just means we’re defining it in a specific way. This still includes the choice to work the hours when it makes sense for you. We don’t have set, core working hours for the majority of employees, we don’t work shift work.
We have flexibility in the choice of your career path, what makes sense for your role and your family and work/life balance—all of those things. One of the things that makes Achievers stand out is that so many people find their next job here. We have a ton of lateral moves and promotions, and that is part of what is built into flexibility; joining this organization enables so many other things. And we have a lot of benefits that enable flexibility in things like healthcare spending accounts. These all define flexibility in multiple ways. Colocation is just one small part of it.
HRE: Do you envision more organizations following suit and more specifically defining flexibility in 2024?
Yardley: Absolutely. Organizations need to feel empowered to make the decisions that work best for the business but also to find ways to bring employees into the decision-making where they can. I think we’ll see more organizations leaning into that. And the organizations that succeed will be listening to the employee voice but also recognizing the need to partner that with what is important to the business as well.
HRE: When it comes to hiring, where do you see the most opportunity for creativity and innovation to gain an edge this year?
Yardley: This idea of a multigenerational workforce. It’s not new but it points to the opportunities to integrate generations across functions, departments and levels. I think when we’re looking at hiring and retention practices, this is going to be really important. With five generations in the workforce, who have so many different experiences, we need to be able to reengage, retain or hire them differently, depending on what those generations are looking for.
We also have this concept of the “Snail Girl” era: People are slowing things down and focusing on themselves, instead of forging the traditional career path. And some organizations see that as being problematic. But when you think about the opportunities that technology can bring, we may actually need less leaders in business. So, this idea that not everyone wants to move up and beyond bodes really well for that [younger] generation.
With an aging workforce, we have the opportunity to help people think about alternative career paths instead of retirement or feeling pushed out—part-time work, casual labor or people who may just choose not to grow their career. How can we reengage them in interesting, creative ways?
HRE: What are your strategies for managing the growing pressures being placed on HR leaders?
Yardley: First and foremost, I find that I maintain my seat at the table when I’m talking about HR things in the business context. Coming forward with an employee engagement problem may fall on deaf ears to some leaders but when you connect it to a business problem, that makes people start to perk up around the table. It’s important to find ways to elevate the HR voice at the table through connecting the traditional HR voice to business strategy.
From the personal side, I keep abreast of the data out there. What I love about the HR profession is that there is so much openness to sharing best practices and great ideas. I’ve found a community of closely-knit people I trust and share ideas with. It’s also important to spend time identifying the research out there; empowering yourself with both people and data can be really helpful.
And at a very personal level, I’ve always had a mantra that, although employee experience is at the heart of what I do, I can’t take it personally. I try not to take it home with me every day. I want to be able to live life at home in a way that allows me to bring my whole self there as well.
HRE: How has being an HR professional shaped the person you are outside of work?
Yardley: Both of my parents were in medical professions, and my brother is a doctor. The idea of health and wellness has been a huge part of my life. I love to run, bike, pick up hobbies that make me emotionally healthy. Man, we spend a lot of time at work. So, when I think about being an HR professional, the idea is to make people happy, healthy and engaged at work—and that’s really a part of wellness. We’re so critical in everybody’s lives. Being in HR allows us to have an impact in such a meaningful way, on a grand scale.