The workplace has undergone more changes in the past 12 months than arguably the past 50 years. What was long the norm for a desk job – a shared office space for leaders and their employees, a regularly booked-out conference room, even communal dining – quickly became undone in light of a rapidly spreading virus that has infiltrated every stratum of the business world and society at large. As companies first scrambled to respond by having employees work from home and are now tasked with envisioning a post-recovery strategy, human resources departments have found themselves on the frontline of companies’ crisis response.
It’s HR that does the heavy lifting in building company culture. Scouting new talent, overseeing the hiring and onboarding processes, and ensuring employees’ wellbeing are just a few of the ways that HR serves as the corporate backbone. But now, a year after the crisis began, companies are weighing what to do next. Should they continue to offer the chance to work from home, even after the pandemic has abated? Or should they bank on a return to ‘normal’ in the prevalence of in-person office space? It’s a tricky decision for HR, which in either option runs the risk of alienating a part of the work force.
Some of the world’s biggest corporations have declared that they’re going “remote-first” in response to the changed world of business after the pandemic. This means a percentage of employees – or in some cases, all of them – can now work from home if they prefer. Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Spotify, Slack, and Dropbox are just a few of the big brands that now give workers the choice of working from home – either for several days a week or full-time – or optionally coming into an office.
While this hybrid approach serves as a catch-all net for potential employees at the moment (Want to work remotely? You can! Prefer an office? We’ve got one!), HR departments and their corporate management at many companies might eventually have to come down on either side of the fence – or find a happy medium.
With the rise in remote work, many employees are moving away from the likes of New York City and London to less expensive geographical areas that better suit their lifestyle preferences beyond the office. In a January 2021 PwC survey on remote work, 87% of executives reported that they expect to implement changes in their real estate strategy over the coming 12 months such as consolidating office space or opening satellite locations, known as the “hub and spoke” approach. On the other hand, 56% said they expect to need more office space going forward. For many, the sheer unprecedented uncertainty of this period increases the temptation to wait and see what others on the market – namely competitors – ultimately decide to do. But by the time their ball is rolling, it might be too late to catch up.
“Employers must accept – and build on the fact – that a return to the office by no means is a return to the ‘normal’ of before the pandemic.”
Employers must accept – and build on the fact – that a return to the office by no means is a return to the “normal” of before the pandemic. A recent FlexJobs survey found that a whopping 96% of employees want to retain some aspect of remote work: 65% said they hope to continue working fully remotely once the pandemic is over and 31% are looking for a hybrid office solution. Of the 669 CEOs surveyed by PwC, 78% agreed that remote working is here to stay in some form or another.
of employees want to retain some aspect of remote work
According to PwC, employers believe the most important reason for bringing workers back to the office is to increase employee productivity. Employees, on the other hand, felt that the main benefit of working in an office space is the opportunity to collaborate with coworkers. Many companies are choosing to rebrand their office space as “collaboration centers” in a bid to highlight its strengths versus the limitations of Zoom meetings.
“Maximal productivity and collaboration are indispensable elements of a company’s culture that are two sides of the same coin.”
Both of these factors – maximal productivity and collaboration – are indispensable elements of a company’s culture that are two sides of the same coin, and it falls to HR to brand these together into a policy that satisfies management’s desire for productivity guarantees and employees’ preferences for flexibility in schedules and location and which makes economic sense for the company.
The hybrid option lets employees pick and mix between the best of both working remotely and coming into the office, which allows for a welcoming space for employees and the chance to foster relationships beyond Zoom meetings. But having an optional office space means that on a given day or week it could be either empty or full past capacity. Paying the overhead on an office with the space for, say, 300 employees will come as a sting if only 50 show up. One way to safeguard against this is to implement a booking system for office space, so that teams or other collaborative groups can schedule time for in-person meetings or projects.
HR leaders have a lot to weigh in making the decision of whether to continue their remote policy and to what extent. The hybrid option, which serves as a compromise for employers and employees and offers enough flexibility to not exclude the preferences of potential new hires, seems likely to become the most prevalent. But a divided work force – with not everyone in the office at the same time, or even spread across satellite offices in smaller cities, and many still working from home – raises the question of how to maintain a strong company culture within the organization that fosters loyalty and employee engagement.
Harvard Business Review polled executives from around the world about how they view company culture in light of remote work and what their plans are for reinforcing it through a hybrid or remote-first policy going forward.
“This isn’t about incremental change — it requires recognizing that culture is evolving despite being remote and that organizations need to invest a substantial amount of time and energy into keeping their cultures on track or steering them in new directions,” HBR writes. “Organizations that fail to do the deep work required to rethink the transmission of company culture may well have unpredictable results.”
The first step is to acknowledge that a hybrid company culture will look and function completely differently from before. Previously, so much of company culture centered around the office space: how workers dress, interact, and use the space itself. Now, it is up to HR to determine new touch points for collaboration beyond work. Despite the distance, the home environment that people are working from home offers the chance for employees to gain a more intimate view into each other’s lives: their families, their pets, their routines. With the right curation and opportunities, this can potentially build even stronger relationships than just around the water cooler.
For the company Slack, this has been an opportunity to “make executives more approachable, show our own vulnerability, and transform the culture into one that more explicitly values individuals and individuality,” according to HBR. Instead of hourlong, monthly meetings, there are more frequent, 20-minute “updates” and town hall-style sessions. “The point is to meet people where they are, to project openness, and to build the same culture of empathy internally that we expect our employees to demonstrate externally with our customers.”
“The benefit of a hybrid hub-and-spoke approach is clear: a broader talent pool spread across cities, states, even countries.”
Choosing a strong hybrid policy and deciding how and when to engage employees in company culture will also help ensure that the process of hiring new talent and subsequent onboarding goes more seamlessly. Indeed, the benefit of a hybrid hub-and-spoke approach is clear: a broader talent pool spread across cities, states, even countries. For HR leaders looking to shore up the best talent, this approach can be even better than anything before.
About the Authors:
Flemming Riber is a Managing Partner of Stanton Chase’s Copenhagen office and Global Industrial Practice Leader.