January heralded the return to the office for the majority of UK workers as Plan B COVID-19 restrictions began to lift.
For HR teams, this means the return of hybrid working and the task of preparing employees for yet another work-life pivot.
Whether it’s your company’s first time trialing a blended approach or you’ve been hybrid for a few months, it is important for HR teams to keep on top of employee feedback and sentiment as we all navigate this new way of working.
Establishing smooth lines of communication for team members in the office and at home will ensure that employees feel as little disruption as possible.
Many people are feeling positive about returning to the office, with research from Michael Page showing workers felt happy (26%) and excited (22%) ahead of the return. But one in four workers (27%) are concerned about losing some of the personal time we have become accustomed to, as well as feeling nervous about a change to their newly established routines.
The four-day working week has been a trending topic here in the UK as workers seek hybrid models that benefit both their professional and personal lives.
HR managers looking to improve employee morale and happiness should be examining their organization’s hybrid working model and thinking about what changes could be made to best serve employees during this transitional period and beyond.
Additionally, with some colleagues more concerned than others by the return to office-based working, HR managers must work with business leaders and line managers to ensure they are challenging proximity bias.
This return is a chance for leaders to flex their approach to hybrid working and realize it’s not one-size-fits-all.
Here is some guidance to help HR teams prepare for the return, and ensure the process is as smooth as it can possibly be.
1. Be organized, but stay flexible in your approach
It’s likely HR managers will be swamped with queries and worries as workers begin to trickle back in, but there are ways to smooth out the process.
A chorus of the same questions from concerned employees can be easily managed by an FAQ email or document that is regularly updated.
Weekly reminders about COVID-19 security can also help ease any worries amongst team members about in-office compliance and safety. Additionally, checking in regularly with employees, both remote and in-office, can help managers figure out what is working and what’s not, and shift gears as appropriate.
It’s going to take some time to settle into a new way of working but having an open line of communication is the best way to start off.
2. Tackle proximity bias head-on
In the post-COVID-19 working world, the old norms have been abandoned when it comes to time spent in the office.
The pandemic has bought into sharp focus how all employees will have differing priorities and be at different stages in their career.
For example, colleagues with children might relish a flexible working approach, giving them more time in the morning for the school drop off before tackling the working day. Others might be more cautious about the volume of people on trains and buses as they head to work and would prefer a staggered starting time.
While there are those who will be in favor of working from home, those who are actively building their careers may be concerned by lack of in-person visibility.
This is because there is a perception that this could mean that opportunities for progression and promotion may be negatively impacted in favor of those employees who spend more time in the office – an assumption which needs to be changed.
It’s essential to tackle this bias and perceived favoritism before it materializes, as leaving workers feeling underappreciated and overlooked can lead to stress across the board and can fracture working relationships.
In the wake of the pandemic, it’s important to recognize that closer ‘physical’ proximity doesn’t equate to higher performance and employees who ‘show face’ more often shouldn’t be rewarded over others purely for this reason.
The ‘Great Resignation’ has shown that employees want more from their employers and tackling proximity or flexibility bias could certainly be a good start in making people feel respected and valued across the board.
Brought to light by the pandemic, proximity bias has become a real challenge, but it’s one that leaders can take on if they’re ready to put in the work. Creating equal opportunities company-wide for remote and office-based workers is the first step to erasing perceived favoritism in businesses.
Leaders aiming to tackle this issue might find a representative for remote workers helps ease some concerns. This representative could, for example, be responsible for ensuring all meetings are made accessible remotely, and that important information given in the office reaches all those working from home.
Companies should look to educate managers on flexibility bias, such as how to recognize and reduce its prevalence.
Seeking out one-to-one time with remote workers on a regular basis can help remove the invisible barrier of remote work, as facetime with employees has been shown to help reduce concerns.
3. Continue support for vulnerable teammates
A return to the office doesn’t mean an end to the pandemic and the reality is that some colleagues may have to stay remote for a while longer.
Inclusion policies are crucial here as HR managers need to ensure that D,E&I guidelines are being extended to those at-risk or immuno-compromised.
Additionally, those colleagues that are remaining remote for the time being should be offered continued support and inclusion in work events such as company meetings, as well as social events where possible.
Playing into continued efforts to combat bias, the return to office should be approached in a staggered manner, with managers being mindful that not everyone will be coming back at the same time.
A weekly HR clinic for employees to drop into, virtually or in-person, can give managers a clearer idea of what support is needed, including mental wellbeing checks and workload reviews.
4. Manage expectations and keep safe
There are some who will be jumping at the chance to get back into the hustle and bustle of the office, but demand does not always equal supply. Businesses looking to be COVID-19-compliant and maintain measures such as social distancing will find that offices simply can’t be at the same capacity they were before.
Plus, lots of companies have downsized their offices in the wake of the pandemic and now need time to assess capacity and safety measures in their new spaces.
There are several ways to maximize time in the office for colleagues who want it whilst ensuring everyone’s safety. Hotdesking was a major trend during the pandemic here in the UK, as workers gave up their previously designated desks and moved to a flexible seating approach. Booking apps can help office managers understand capacity on certain days and whether more desk availability is needed.
Dependent on teams and roles, there could also be designated days, where in-person meetings are held for certain departments. This not only gives people the facetime with colleagues that they want but contributes to healthier mental wellbeing by reducing some of the isolation that was so prevalent during lockdowns.
The return of hybrid working is likely to be a constant work in progress, as we adjust and readjust to new ways of working. Ensuring every colleague, both remote and office based, is kept informed and feels valued and understood, is the best way to ensure success in the new normal.
Sign up to the UNLEASH Newsletter
Get the Editor’s picks of the week delivered straight to your inbox!