Culture

The Hybrid Work Transformation — PART I: Tips for Human Resources

Nicole Dessain
·
August 23, 2021

You know a function has made it when it is being covered almost daily by mainstream media. Such is the case with Human Resources these days (Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic). We HR leaders have ascended into the limelight.

The main reason for the increased attention is the workplace disruption caused by the pandemic. Many are realizing that we will never return to the way we used to work, and many of us don’t want to.

Organizations who still think they can turn back the clock should heed the research: According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index released this March which is based on insights gleaned from 30,000 people in 31 countries, 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. When asked how they would prefer to work moving forward, respondents indicated they desire the best of both worlds: 73 percent of workers surveyed want flexible remote work options to continue, while at the same time, 67 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. That this “best of both worlds” trend is likely to stay is evidenced by recent migration patterns from the cities to the suburbs.

Hybrid is the name of the game for the foreseeable work future.

What is the opportunity of this moment for Human Resources?

The pandemic has brought us a long overdue workplace transformation and an opportunity for the Human Resources function to drive meaningful change and re-imagine the way we approach work — more human, less corporate drone.

“A thoughtful approach to hybrid work matters. Employees are at an inflection point. The way companies approach the next phase of work — embracing the flexibility people want to retain and learning from the challenges of the past year — will impact who stays, who goes, and who ultimately seeks to join your company.” (Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trends Index)

There are key roles needed to craft the future workplace: Human Resources professionals are the architects of the hybrid framework. Leaders are the designers of their hybrid team environments. And employees are hybrid work co-creators.

HR is being asked to design an entirely new way of working. The old playbook does not serve anymore. An all-co-located or all-distributed model poses much less complexity from an HR perspective than a hybrid model does, but for most companies the benefits outweigh its risks. According to research firm Gartner, opportunities for working in a hybrid model might include: improved performance and engagement, increased effort and productivity, expanded and more diverse talent pools, greater emotional well-being, EVP fulfillment and alignment, reduced commuting costs and carbon footprint, and reduced facility and operating costs.

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton states in her analysis How to Do Hybrid Right that for a hybrid transformation to succeed, organizations need to “design hybrid work arrangements with individual human concerns in mind, not just institutional ones.”

Never has there been such a profound opportunity to apply human-centered design principles to the world of work.

I partner with organizations that currently navigate their hybrid transformations and have daily conversations with Human Resources and Employee Experience leaders. The following are three pain points I hear most about, along with a few design thinking inspired thought starters to tackle them.

Pain Point #1: How might we help our teams navigate a return to public spaces and work relationships when everyone comes back with different emotional scars caused by the pandemic?

A collective trauma requires an empathetic response. As a first step, pause and recognize that your employees have changed. Analyze your teams and the world your company operates in to fully understand which pain points you are trying to solve.

Put your employees’ minds at rest by describing how you plan to make your office a safe place. Provide reasonable testing and vaccination guidelines that balance privacy with health safety concerns, possibly enabled through technology. Co-create an employee experience journey that surfaces pain points and outlines what a phased approach and critical milestones for returning to the office might look like (prior to day one; on day one; week one; and beyond).

Answer critical questions: How are people doing and what do they need? Who will be able to work remotely? Who will need to come into the office, and for what amount of time? When people do focused work, where will they do it? How will teams collaborate?

Next, codify the answers to these questions to define what hybrid means for your organization. Be conscious that words matter in designing for inclusivity. For example, terms like “essential” vs “non-essential” when classifying your workforce can create an “us vs them” culture split within the organization. Using the term “virtual” vs “remote” when describing how work will get done in a hybrid model is an example of more inclusive language.

Create employee personas that consider work/home situations and preferences to inform customized actions:

“Equinor, a Norwegian energy company, has recently taken an ingenious approach to understanding its employees: It surveyed them about their preferences and developed nine composite “personas,” with guidelines for hybrid work arrangements tailored to each one. One of the personas is described like this: “Anna” is a sector manager in Oslo who has been with the company for 20 years. She has three teenagers at home and a 40-minute bicycle commute into the office. Before Covid-19, she worked every other week from home, primarily to focus. But with her teenagers now doing remote schooling in the house, she is often distracted when working from home. When the pandemic is at last behind us, and her kids are back at school, she hopes to spend two days a week at home, doing focused work, and three days in the office, collaborating with her team.” (Lynda Gratton: How to Do Hybrid Right)

As you define specific tactics for your hybrid transformation, supplement insights from your employees with additional inspiration. There are countries that have already been operating in a hybrid model (e.g., Australia) and organizations that have already transitioned to a hybrid workplace. DevOps platform provider GitLab compiled a comprehensive list of considerations for a hybrid model approach as well as blueprints of hybrid companies. Further learning might be gleaned from other areas of our lives that have already operated in a hybrid model, for example schools and colleges.

Pain Point #2: How might we make employees feel heard in this ever-changing work environment?

Over-communicate as you make decisions about what your hybrid rollout will look like. If you have not informed your employees about post pandemic working arrangements at this point, they are likely spiraling in anxiety. Consulting firm McKinsey found in a recent study that companies who pro-actively communicate, are seeing benefits to employee well-being and productivity. The study revealed that the top areas employees crave clarity around are clear work schedule guidelines, how to best leverage virtual collaboration tools, protocols for meetings, and reimbursement policies for home office set up.

Even if you have not figured out all the details of your transformation, you can acknowledge that times have changed, and you are throwing out the old playbook and re-inventing work. Invite your employees to join in and provide feedback along the way. Some attempts might not work but commit to keep iterating till you get it right. This is an example of how Microsoft messaged their hybrid transformation.

Ways of communicating with employees might include use of storytelling, frequent pulse checks using anonymous survey tools, and “re-entry interviews” for employees (e.g., week one, week two, month one): “What have you done that worked? What are some of the things you learned last year? What should we leave behind? What sustained you? What worked in how you felt supported? What is making your job difficult?”. Co-create solutions with employees via virtual empathy and ideation sessions (e.g., Hackathons).

At the recent Bloomberg WorkShifting Summit, Verizon’s Chief Human Resource Officer, Christy Pambianchi shared that they created a “Work Forward” micro site that provides guidance on collaboration and helps to establish norms as well as guardrails for how work gets done moving forward. At the same event, Kiersten Robinson, Chief People and Employee Experiences Officer at Ford Motor Company, shared that her team is checking in with employees 1–2 times per week to ask how they are feeling, what is working/what is not, and what support they might need. The HR team uses that information to shape how they communicate, issue safety protocols, and re-design workspace.

Pain Point #3: How might we re-imagine employee experience in a hybrid world?

Many employee experience leaders I talk to continuously navigate tradeoffs between experience and policy (e.g., regarding health and safety) as well as equity considerations (e.g., virtual vs in office location bias). A way to address these tensions is to create themes and guidelines that provide clarity around common values, behaviors, and standards but that can be flexed by country/department. As an example, cloud communications platform provider Twilio created guiding principles around equity, trust, flexibility, tools & technology at the core of their Open Work hybrid model.

Attracting Talent

The benefits of a hybrid work model include the possibility of tapping into a broader talent pool. According to Microsoft Work Trends, remote job postings on LinkedIn increased more than five times during the pandemic.

This is the opportunity to re-imagine your value proposition and brand messaging for prospective job candidates, thereby shining a light on all the benefits you have created for employees by moving to a hybrid model — from radical flexibility to holistic well-being.

While you are at it, why not create more inclusivity in the hiring process?

“Our data from around the world shows that COVID-19 has likely had a more damaging impact on women’s careers than men’s, and that women have been disproportionately leaving the labor market since the pandemic started. Employers can help by actively seeking female talent, removing bias from job descriptions, and offering more flexibility to allow for a better work-life balance. Similar logic creates opportunities for other struggling groups, including ethnic minorities, younger generations, and those of lower income. In the U.S., our survey found that Black, U.S. Latino workers, and women are more likely than white workers and men to say they prefer remote work.” (Microsoft Work Trends)

For a recent #HRvsRacism Talent Acquisition Hackathon our research concluded there are three factors impacting equitable hiring: 1) Biases at key decision points; 2) Factors driving the candidate experience of diverse talent; 3) Enablers of an expanded diverse talent pool.

By re-designing the hiring process for inclusivity, you are creating a fairer process and a better candidate experience for everyone.

Onboarding Talent

According to SHRM research, nearly one-third of all new hires quit their jobs within the first six months. That means they are still looking for other jobs during that time and bad first impressions are hard to recover from. The new hire experience even prior to the pandemic was no delight. Shockingly, the onboarding program navigate! I designed twenty years ago during my time at DaimlerChrysler Financial Services (featured as a Corporate Leadership Council case study) is still in many ways a leading practice.

Instead of repurposing your stale programs, seize the opportunity to re-imagine the onboarding journey and optimize it for the hybrid world. Keys are connection, choice, and flexibility.

Some inspiration: During our #HRvsVirus Hackathon last April, one of the teams created an interactive journey map for new hires and other stakeholders involved in their onboarding.

During a recent HR.Hackathon on hybrid onboarding, one of the teams designed a “perk pack” — a tricked out welcome kit for hybrid new hires, designed to be a meaningful yet practical introduction to the new company culture. And the mobility data and analytics technology company Arity re-imagined their new hires’ first day using the design sprint method.

Engaging Talent

The Microsoft Work Trends report found that strong workplace networks are more than just a “nice to have.” They impact two things important to the bottom line: productivity and innovation. People who said they felt the most productive in the survey also reported strong workplace relationships and feelings of inclusion at work.

Audio streaming provider Spotify was one of the first companies pioneering a Work from Anywhere model. In a recent blog post, the Spotify HR team highlighted one of their practices geared at deepening community and belonging in a hybrid world, called The Band Reunion:

“The Band Reunion is a three-month program designed to deepen each Spotifier’s understanding and connection to the Spotify culture. It focuses on engaging and empowering Spotifiers globally to revisit our core values, and Band Manifesto, and take responsibility for evolving the culture. It’s a learning experience shared globally that’s optimized for scale, distributed teams, and profound discussion. We believe that a program such as this could not come at a better time.”

Career Development as usual does not work anymore in an ever-changing hybrid-work world. Ahead of the curve, Jennifer Dewey at BASF Colors & Effects experimented with Career Design, a concept that enables employees and leaders to co-create career development. You might also consider extending career design opportunities to your interns or other entry level and transitioning talent you are trying to attract. Last summer, we prototyped a career hackathon and the impact on the person receiving the support was profound.

In Germany, Katharina Krentz at Robert Bosch GmbH has spearheaded a movement to bring the Working Out Loud peer learning concept into corporations.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out these HR.Hackathon ideas for how to engage employees in a hybrid world.

Caring for Talent

“I want my employer to care,” is the employee mantra that will continue to resonate long after the pandemic. Not only caring for the person who is your employee. Caring for the whole human.

Burnout has become the next health crisis. Start by conducting research: Are your people taking time off in the pandemic? If not, how might you co-create solutions with them?

Some research suggests that benefits have become a more important aspect of the employment deal since the pandemic. Employees’ new benefit needs may range from added mental health support to care giving assistance to financial wellness and education. It will be important for you to consider how wellness programs and work policies affect each group uniquely. The pandemic has disproportionally impacted working women. How were women in your organization adversely impacted, what are their main pain points, and how might you support them?

Look at your benefits program through the lens of what your organization can offer and what investments will best support the most immediate needs of your team. For instance, policies such as wellness days on top of vacation and sick time can normalize taking time off. Other examples include investments in increased access to therapy, especially for workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic, as well as subsidized daycare for working parents and flexible schedules for all.

Greenpath’s Danielle Crane combined a design thinking approach with behavioral economics principles to co-create meaningful benefits and then encourage their usage.

Conclusion: What if all organizations embraced a human-centered approach to how we re-imagine the hybrid workplace? Essentially, we are in the middle of a longitudinal research project where we study how and where work gets done. Design can be our superpower here. By running a series of pilots, learning what works well, and then iterating and improving to get to better outcomes as we go.

Let’s continue to share our hybrid workplace experiments so we can continue to learn from each other!

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