When the pandemic entered our work lives, HR leaders urgently took action to move their teams to a fully remote model. Now, with news of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, we face a much more complicated challenge and set of choices.
Do we return our teams to an office life like before the pandemic? Do we stay in this pajama-filled life of a remote-work wonderland? Or do we shape some hybrid of these worlds? The choices we make are just the beginning, so we must rethink all aspects of HR, such as facets of collaboration, benefits, and the perks of the modern work culture.
Choices such as these are critical to keeping employees happy, but in a post-COVID-19 world, there are no easy answers. Some of your employees are longing for a return to social connection and the perks of office life, while others would be thrilled to end their commutes forever.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each option; each one necessitates teams taking different steps to ensure they are embraced by your workforce and adding a positive element to your culture.
Is office collaboration worth the commute?
Returning to office-based work means requiring your employees to live within commutable range and aligning on expectations to spend 2-5 days a week together in the office (I’d expect 3 to become the new normal).
The benefits of this model should be apparent to any team that’s struggled with engagement since remote work began. Office-based teams build trust and community faster and have the greatest potential for creative collaboration. On top of that, office work may actually improve work-life balance. A study by Atlassian found that 42% of workers feel work-from-home leaders keep longer hours. This model also makes it much easier for people and workplace operations teams to focus on creating a common, quality employee experience.
But it’s not all upside, and we must also consider the risks. Some employees may be unwilling to return to office life and leave you for companies that have chosen to remain remote. Requiring office work also shrinks your talent pool back to your geographic region.
If you plan on returning to office-based work, your company must reinvest (and perhaps double down) on perks such as meal catering, fitness centers, and in-office experience, or risk losing talent. You should also invest in additional team building activities and ensure your team finds purpose in and outside of their work, perhaps through giving programs or volunteering. In the end, you want employees to feel their office is not just a workplace, but a community that they are proud to be a part of.
A remote-only office
A remote-first organization is one in which any employee can work flexibly as long as they operate mostly in the same time zone, with perhaps “anywhere in the world” exceptions. Some remote-first organizations may have small office hubs, but in this model there’s no expectation that employees work from them frequently. You should expect these to be replaced by external team meeting spaces as the costs mount for empty desks.
Among the upsides for this model are an increase in the size of your talent pool and access to specialized talent, anywhere. A remote-first team means your company can build a unified employee experience to support a single benefits and perks program, which is far easier than having to support different sets of workers based on geographic location.
The challenge with this model is that it’s much more difficult to build a close-knit team. In Atlassian’s study, the company found that nearly one-third of employees say they spend less time talking informally with colleagues, which means spontaneous interactions, a key to innovation, are more rare. If friendships and social bonds between team members become less common, this could affect employee retention down the road.
However, you can make it work, if you replace some of your leasing costs with costs for quarterly events, annual kickoffs, and travel, which bring people together for in-person fun. You can also shift to invest more in employee engagement and defining company identity.
Prioritize constantly experimenting with new collaboration platforms to make sure you’re up-to-date on technology, which can help your team feel connected and productive.
A hybrid office
In a hybrid model, some teams are defined as remote-only, some are defined as in-office only, and some are mixed. Employees are hired with clear expectations on how and where they’ll work, but in general companies in this model will try to find a way to prioritize employee preferences and “make it work.”
Nevertheless, adopters of this model should exercise caution. Hybrid work has the benefit of meeting the preferences of both types of workers and can help you retain talent who wish to relocate. But it can also create an “us” versus “them” culture, where the office and remote workers resent each other. “The grass is always greener,” they say, but in this case there may be truth to it because it is difficult for people leaders to create a consistent employee experience in which both sets of workers receive equitable opportunities.
To make this work, you should try to create consistency within each team. For example, your sales teams are remote, while your marketers are in-office, or vice versa. This will help your managers build unified cultures within their own organizations, and also help set clear expectations while recruiting talent. You also need to invest in cultivating talent to be careful that remote workers aren’t being overlooked for promotions just because they aren’t as visible to management. Finally, you need to be certain that remote employees can be seen and heard during mixed meetings, so you may choose to invest in technology such as video walls with high-fidelity sound systems, so everyone knows they belong in the conversation.
We’re still months away from widespread vaccinations, so there’s plenty of time to figure out the best path for your company. The most important thing you can do now is understand the possibilities and trade-offs that match the needs of your employees and the nature of your business. It’s not going to be easy, but 2020 taught us that with resilience and flexibility, your teams can continue to do amazing work no matter where they are located.
AJ Josephson is the head of people operations at Miro.