There are several months to go before nominations for top buzzwords of 2021 close, but “hybrid workplace” is making a case for #1. Ask half a dozen people what it means, and you’ll probably get six different answers, but at the most fundamental level, a hybrid workplace is a model that supports both onsite and remote workers. The challenge is to make the hybrid workplace work for everyone.
As more and more companies reopen their offices, employees may feel a divide between those choosing to return to the physical workplace and those who would prefer to stay at home. This brings up questions of workplace bias, like whether in-office workers have an advantage when it comes to participating in company culture initiatives or receiving in-person recognition and attention.
Company leaders will need to consider bias when it comes to remote workers and set people up for success, regardless of location. It’s a critical task because, at many companies, there are people who can’t be in the office on a regular basis, including those who no longer live near a company facility, immunocompromised individuals, working parents, and those who may experience anxiety or mental health challenges when faced with transitioning back to the office full time.
Addressing their needs and putting everyone in the company on a level playing field won’t be as simple as offering flexible work arrangements. It will require empathy, creativity, and commitment to building an inclusive environment where everyone receives the recognition they’ve earned, regardless of how often they get face time with leaders at the office. There are several strategies companies can consider to set employees up for success in a hybrid environment.
Demonstrate a commitment to all employees
People who aren’t at the office every day have concerns about access to career development and advancement opportunities. One way to allay those fears—and take advantage of a key benefit to employers in a hybrid model—is to hire the best person for the job at every level, regardless of location. When remote workers include senior people, it sends the message that location is irrelevant when it comes to upward mobility inside the company.
Manager support is also critical. Keep in mind that many managers hadn’t directed an all-remote workforce until the pandemic hit, and the unprecedented circumstances brought new challenges managers hadn’t handled before, so they might not know what help is available. For that reason, it’s a good idea to reach out to managers and let them know how the company can help them facilitate remote working and accommodate specific employee needs.
In one real-life example, a sales rep and his partner (also in sales) were both working from a studio apartment, and the sales rep had to conduct some calls from the bathroom because it was the only quiet place available. The people team heard about this incidentally and was able to help, with the company providing a green screen so the sales rep was better able to cope with the space challenge.
It’s also important to be sensitive to cultural issues for teams located outside the U.S. that have different expectations around work location. In India, multigenerational households are common, and employees might not have broadband and office equipment at home, so some employees there struggle with remote working. When managers work with the people team, the company can help employees succeed by offering remote staff desks, monitors, internet, and other essentials.
The people team can also work with managers to help make sure they are equipped to manage remote teams going forward. During stressful times, it’s also a good idea to ask managers to be on the lookout for signs of distress from remote employees, even signals that may seem counterintuitive at first, such as not taking PTO or suddenly going off video during a meeting. Overwork can lead to burnout, which has been rampant during the pandemic.
Project your company culture
Companies that are implementing a hybrid model should find a way to project their company culture across channels so that everyone feels like a valued member of the team, regardless of proximity. There are virtual tools that can help, like the ubiquitous online meeting platforms we’ve become accustomed to over the past year. Business communication platforms like Slack can help maintain a positive culture when you use them to celebrate wins and form employee interests groups.
For those managers and employees who have worked remotely since well before the pandemic, they’ve already adapted to the challenges (and benefits!) that come with remote work. These employees can help facilitate a positive experience and an inclusive hybrid work environment for those who have not yet had this workplace experience.
Another way to project your culture remotely is to create a program to onboard new employees who may be joining the team without being able to meet people face-to-face initially. Components could include virtual meetings with senior leaders to touch base with new team members, let them know their work matters, and keep them in the loop on the company’s direction. Mentorships can also help, as can frequent manager check-ins (on a one-on-one basis) and in-person get-togethers when it’s safe to do so to build a sense of camaraderie and communicate company values in a consistent way.
It’s important to maintain progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs, and the ability to hire the best person for the job regardless of location can help companies in this regard. But ensuring that the workplace is inclusive and equitable requires ongoing work to understand and respond to people’s lived experience. At my company, we broadened our maternity leave program specifically to address the impact of maternity on women’s careers, which disproportionately affects women of color.
Be prepared to change your approach
Implementing a fair and effective hybrid workplace plan also requires the ability to shift gears quickly if necessary. The pandemic demonstrated how critical organizational agility is as workforce needs changed practically overnight. When we fully emerge from the pandemic, those needs may change again, and people teams will need to stay agile so they can pivot quickly and align people with company objectives.
The truth is, we’re all still trying to figure out the best way forward. We’ve been through an unparalleled and difficult event together, and part of creating an effective hybrid workplace will be responding with empathy. Managers should remember that employees are still reacting to and experiencing the effects of the pandemic—they will need to keep checking in on employees in the months ahead.
A strong company culture that represents all employee experiences builds trust. When business leaders demonstrate that they value employees regardless of location or situation, employees can truly feel like a contributing part of a larger whole. The key is for leaders to remain flexible and agile so that they are prepared to pivot and respond to changing employee needs and circumstances. It might not be perfect out of the gate, but committing to a test and learn approach—while working towards a workplace that provides an inclusive environment for everyone—will lead to better outcomes for all.
Melissa Dreuth is the chief of staff to the CEO and chief people officer at Planful.