“Do you think you’ll return to the office?”
How often have you asked or been asked that question lately?
When workplaces across the country shut down due to COVID-19, many Australians had to make very sudden adjustments to how they worked. For the lucky ones, work didn’t stop but moved into their homes. The great work-from-home experiment had a very abrupt beginning, but, if the majority of predictions are anything to go by, work will never be the same again.
While this may not be the death of the office, it will likely change what it looks like. HRM reported previously that many employees are happy with remote work, it allows them more time with family and in some cases makes them more productive. But others might prefer a return to the workplace, maybe because they miss the social interaction or work in teams that perform better together, or perhaps work is safer than home.
For many workplaces this will create a kind of blended workforce. The exact shape will vary. In some organisations employees might switch fluidly between remote and non-remote work on a weekly basis, in others there will be structured on and off days. What this article will focus on are those workplaces that end up split into two groups, those who work almost entirely away from the office and the mostly in-house staff. How can HR create a positive culture that doesn’t become an “us vs them” battle?
HRM spoke to a workplace culture expert who says there are three areas to focus on:
- Removing labels
- Keeping a balance
- Using technology.
1. Removing labels
“There really shouldn’t be any distinction between those who choose to work in the office and those who work from home,” says Worklogic director, Jason Clark. “People who work remotely still want to be included and contribute like anybody else.”
Clark has recently returned to the office but says a lot of his staff still work remotely and, since they have offices in Sydney and Melbourne, the company has always made sure separated employees understand they’re on the same side.
Language plays a huge role in creating positive environments, says Clark.“In our offices, we don’t have any distinction between remote workers and those in the office. We’re all the same irrespective of where we work.”
Clark says COVID-19 has meant that people who used to have no idea about remote work now understand what it’s actually like. Companies that valued being able to see employees – who were afraid remote work would mean lower productivity – can see that (for individual efforts at least) remote work can make us more productive.
“We need to get away from the mentality that the way to measure the success of a project is by how many hours people put into it rather than how successful their actual outputs are,” says Clark.
“One thing about COVID-19 is it’s been a great leveller… it’s made the idea of a ‘remote team’ a bit redundant. We have a better understanding that you can really do your work anywhere.”
Clark recommends managers create ways for staff to meet regularly, so regardless of where they are all staff are familiar with each other.
“We try to have frequent, scheduled meetings for everybody, including those working remotely. Scheduling is important so everyone can make themselves available and all staff can see and get to know each other.”
2. Keeping a balance
Clark says, as a rule of thumb, what you do for one group you should do for the other.
“You don’t want your remote workers to feel like outsiders, but at the same time, you don’t want your in-house people to feel disadvantaged because they didn’t choose to work remotely.
It’s interesting Clark even uses the term “choose” and it demonstrates just how quickly beliefs around flexible work have evolved in the past months. While previously working from home was often a privilege only awarded to some, at least some organisations are thinking working remotely as a first option.
“It’s incumbent on HR and managers to provide the right support and technology for both groups and make sure you’re not focusing on one.”
HR managers need to keep abreast of any issues in both groups and react swiftly if the balance appears to be tipping in anyone’s favour.
“If staff begin to feel like ‘oh remote workers are getting a better deal’, or vice-versa, HR should address those issues before they become a massive problem.”
Visibility is also important, says Clark. When employees are kept out of the loop they may begin to fill in the gaps with their own beliefs. Again, this can create a bitterness if they believe one group is being favoured.
“There will always be these pockets in organisations where an ‘us vs them’ mentality can develop. So it’s really on HR to be visibly consistent in how they treat each group.”
3. Using technology well
Communication technology is what made the massive shift to remote work possible. Many rebuilt their communication around messaging platforms or video conferencing to ensure staff felt connected while working remotely. Clark urges organisations not to abandon that technology as employees return to workplaces and says doing so will put a barrier up between employees.
“It’s about maintaining what you’ve already put in place, not going back to those traditional whiteboard meetings around the table. Make sure you are using all the resources available and leveraging technology.”
However, staff need to know how to use technology and, perhaps more importantly, when to use it. HRM has previously covered how hard it is to identify if a colleague is struggling when they’re not visible, but also it’s not so easy to know when a colleague might have a bit of downtime or moment to spare if you need assistance.
“It’s about being aware of the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality and not being afraid to call and say ‘do you have 5 minutes to chat?’ without being afraid to disturb people.
“Make people feel comfortable that they can call each other at any time or just reach out on Slack or whichever [messaging] system you use.”
Technology also helps employees socialise and keep connected on a personal level.
“Getting people together for virtual drinks or virtual coffee catch-ups is really important. A lot of people miss that ‘water cooler chat’ so these catch-ups are a way to recreate that.
Clark says HR will need to have a little patience as staff find their groove. Luckily a lot have already put in the groundwork, so now it’s just about tweaking those procedures to fit the current situation.
“There is no reason to go back to the old way. The people want to work from home, the technology is there, and we should be leveraging off of that.”