According to research by the International Workplace Group, nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of American workers feel that flexible working is the ‘new normal’. Of all respondents, 80 per cent would choose a role that offers flexible working conditions over one that does not, and nearly a third (30 per cent) value being able to choose where they work from, more than extra vacation time.
With the world still trying to find its balance in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, remote and flexible working is something many businesses have had to come to terms with, whether they were ready or not.
That has added pressure in a number of department, one of which is HR. People and culture roles face huge challenges as workforces are suddenly dispersed, and remote work has introduced new obstacles and difficulties for those whose job it is to manage corporate wellbeing and satisfaction.
However, they are not the only ones experiencing disruption. Many employees feel uncertainty in this new world of work, and are struggling to find their way with familiar roles in unfamiliar circumstances. Understanding how to do their everyday work in a new context is confusing for some, and frustrating for others, which makes the role of HR even more important.
It is in a situation like this that solid processes can bridge the gaps and provide a sense of stability that people need.
While people are unlikely to forget what they do, the sense of dislocation that comes from a new work setting can leave some unclear on what is expected from them. Having well-established processes for key tasks goes a long way to reducing this confusion, and allows teams to update the processes to account for additional steps, systems, or procedures.
With the right process platform, those changes can go live for all teams immediately, making it easier to follow updated protocols.
More than just having clear processes for their work, teams will need clear processes for how to work. They will look to HR to define what a workday looks like when they are working from home. While flexibility is prized, there needs to be clarity around how hours and outputs are measured, and what the expectations are for availability.
HR needs to define the calendar requirements for staff, so people know when they are expected to be ‘at work’ and how that is reported. Implementing tracking systems, from ‘clock in’ timers to reporting software and trackers helps employees focus and report on their productivity. By establishing these processes and keeping them front-of-mind, HR can ease any guilt associated with abnormal hours, while maintaining people’s focus and efforts.
An important part of that comes down to HR checking in with their remote teams. This is a vital process, or set of processes for HR workers. Making regular contact with people to ensure they understand expectations and have the right tools in place to meet them can reduce the stress of the unknown.
Having a schedule of intentional contact will make sure no one feels isolated, even if they are working apart from their team, and helps HR keep a finger on the pulse of the staff. As part of the regular check-ins, providing links to exercises for mental and physical wellbeing can add value to the remote workers’ experience and communicate real value.
Working from home – or a library, or coffee shop – is not the same as working in a controlled office environment. Where every effort has been made at the office to keep the walkways clear and uncluttered, many work-from-home parents have to navigate a minefield of Legos just to get to their workstation in the morning. Helping staff come to terms with healthy and helpful work practices at home is an important part of what HR can do for remote teams.
When people transition to working remotely, HR should have a process for establishing them in the new setting with optimal comfort and productivity. Just as the IT department will want to make sure they have the equipment to work effectively and keep sensitive data safe, HR should consider the wider working environment. Conducting a video call and taking a virtual ‘tour’ of their workstation can help make sure they have good ergonomics and the equipment they need to be productive.
Part of this process could be communicating guidelines for what workers should do to maintain best working practices. There needs to be room for flexibility, but not compromise, on things like adequate seating and posture, good work surface height, and room to concentrate. These steps could include providing links to good deals on recommended equipment (or subsidized options, if things like laptop risers or additional screens are not supplied) and tutorials on setting up effective workspaces.
HR can build engagement through this too. Make it fun by starting a competition for photos of people’s workspaces, challenging teams to come up with who has the best ‘office’ view, the coolest desk setup, or cutest home-office pet.
One of the key concerns for HR with a dispersed workforce is employees feeling a sense of isolation. Without the informal gatherings and interactions, work may be more efficient but it is also less social, and can quickly become lonely or dissatisfying. HR workers need to develop systems and processes that can engage workers outside of their key tasks.
Some of this can come through intentional non-work connections. Sharing ‘coffee breaks’ via video calls and establishing informal channels for small talk or socialization can keep people connected. Tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack can incorporate more relaxed channels around favorite TV shows, recipes, pets or pastimes to help people build relationships and get to know their coworkers as individuals. There are numerous apps that HR teams can incorporate to prompt employees to engage with one another through challenges, random questions, ad-hoc virtual meetings and online activities.
The future of centralized company offices is a question we do not have a complete answer to yet. While some businesses need that on-site, physical proximity, many are discovering that they can function just as effectively, or even more so, with a dispersed workforce. With workers seeking greater flexibility and freedom, HR departments need to develop effective practices to promote healthy working conditions and encourage the sharing of business processes that remove uncertainty and keep everyone on the same page, regardless of where they work from.