HR News

Doubling Down on Remote Work

Claire Babbage, senior director of people operations at Rhino, talks about how allowing employees to work from home indefinitely has impacted the company’s human resources strategy.

By Maggie Mancini

More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies worldwide to shutter office buildings and adapt to remote work, some organizations are pushing for employees to return to their desks. Among those that still have an in-person workplace, 90% of companies are planning to bring employees back to the office by the end of 2024.  

As other organizations prioritize return-to-office mandates in the hopes of improving productivity and encouraging face-to-face communication, others have doubled down on remote work. This is the case for Rhino, a company that provides property owners and renters with security deposit solutions in order to facilitate a more affordable rental ecosystem. After emptying their New York City office during the pandemic, Rhino is committing to a remote working model indefinitely, says Claire Babbage, the company’s senior director of people operations.  

“We understand that being remote isn’t for every company or every employee, but we’re finding it works well for us, and we look for traits and behaviors in our candidates that suit remote work, like self-motivation, communication skills, time management, comfort with working independently, and flexibility,” Babbage says. “And given that our customers are property owners and renters all across the country, there are advantages of having employees in a lot of different markets.”  

While Rhino already had a handful of remote employees before the pandemic, the decision to part ways with its office space involved a few key considerations, Babbage says. For one, remote work provides Rhino with access to exceptional talent in the United States and across the globe. Secondly, it enables location-agnostic compensation at competitive levels across all markets. Finally, Rhino’s existing employees prefer flexibility in how and where they work, she says.  

Employee engagement has taken on new meaning for HR leaders, with a recent Gallup report finding that just 31% of workers in the U.S. and Canada feel engaged at work. As employers strive to curb the trend of quiet quitters disengaging from their company’s overall business goals, HR leaders are implementing strategies aimed at retaining talent and supporting employee well-being.  

When it comes to employee engagement strategy at Rhino, Babbage says that the company values taking initiative and making sure each employee understand how their role impacts the company’s overall business goals.  

“Rhino’s employee engagement strategy has evolved significantly,” Babbage says. “With a distributed team, you can’t count on organic touchpoints and ‘spontaneous interactions,’ to quote a phrase sometimes associated with the value of the office. We have to be more intentional about connection. The faster we can get employees to a point where they feel like they’re making a real contribution, the more they feel engaged.” 

Babbage explains that she’s doing more one-on-one touchpoints with employees than she has in the past and taking part in far more virtual gatherings. In addition, her team at Rhino pushes managers to ramp up new hires to get them to do more meaningful, autonomous work as quickly as possible.  

“I started just a few weeks before the pandemic, so most of my experience with Rhino has been in a remote environment,” Babbage says. “My focus is on how employees feel now and what they need to succeed. So much has changed since early 2020 as far as how we work, and I’ve seen that continue to shift each year as we’ve settled into our 100% remote environment.” 

Rhino relies heavily on qualitative feedback from employees, including formal engagement surveys used to gauge ongoing employee sentiment. Babbage says that the company was pleased to see that employees’ top three scoring statements about the company, with 97% favorability, included: 

  • “I am able to arrange for time out of work when I need to;”
    “My manager genuinely cares about my well-being;” and  
  • “I know how my work contributes to Rhino’s overall goals.”    

Employees tend to seek remote or flexible work arrangements to improve work-life balance, spend more time with loved ones, and help them become a more attentive partner or spouse, according to research from FlexJobs. But while studies have shown that some remote workers have flourished and thrived with flexible work, others have experienced worsened mental and physical health.  

2022 report in The Southwest Respiratory and Clinical Care Chronicles finds that remote workers struggle with work-life balance, decreased productivity, worsened physical health due to sedentary behaviors, and higher levels of insomnia compared to in-office workers.  

To support mental health and wellness among Rhino’s remote workers, Babbage says she meets with managers once per month to keep the lines of communication open and stay informed about how the teams are operating. This allows her to make sure that all teams are aligned on the organization’s priorities and let managers know that they have HR’s support in any challenges that may arise.  

More broadly, Babbage recommends that managers listen, stay empathetic, communicate openly, be clear about expectations, and offer resources to employees to support their mental health and well-being.  

“Being a fully remote employee isn’t for everyone, especially those who crave the water cooler moments that many of us remember,” Babbage says. “We look for the traits and demonstrated history of independent success that suggest a candidate will be most successful. Year over year our managers have scored very high favorable scores, which shows that our managers are active listeners and are empathetic to their team’s life outside of work.”  

In addition to hiring candidates who have proven they can succeed while working independently, being intentional about touchpoints, and listening to employee feedback, Babbage says that it’s important for HR leaders to find ways to have fun and engage with employees. Though it became clear early on that Rhino employees didn’t want to participate in social meetings or virtual happy hours during the pandemic, Babbage explains that the company chose instead to introduce trivia games on Slack in lieu of additional Zoom meetings.  

“Everyone looks forward to it, and we like to compete,” Babbage says. “Employees take turns defining topics and questions. It’s a fun way to engage with others across the organization at all levels. It’s not fancy. It’s low effort. There’s a tendency to overthink these kinds of activities. Sometimes, the best engagement methods are the simplest ones.”  

Preparing for 2024

AI, personalized benefits communications, and financial wellness offerings will be major players in HR strategy in the new year. 

By Maggie Mancini

2023 has been filled with rapid technological innovation. As organizations embrace artificial intelligence to streamline recruitment, retention, and engagement efforts, HR leaders are simultaneously working to build trust among employees who are concerned about job displacement and searching for ways to prepare the workforce for the inevitable changes AI will bring.  

At the same time, employee wellness in all forms has taken on a new meaning, with employers striving to improve the employee experience and connect workers to their organization’s overall mission.  

Research indicates that employers will remain focused on AI and employee engagement in 2024. A recent IBM study finds that 40% of the workforce will need to reskill in response to the implementation of generative AI, while findings from John Hancock reveal that greater employee engagement can help fuel financial wellness and deepen relationships between employees and their employer.  

Petrina Thompson, head of HR at Brightside, shares how she anticipates how these trends will reshape HR strategy in the new year.   

Taking Advantage of the AI Revolution 

Organizations are likely to establish a more dedicated AI pillar and utilize strategies they may not have tried before in 2024, Thompson says. HR leaders will need to establish a deeper knowledge and understanding of AI. As employers begin to see things through an AI-focused lens, there may be an uptick of job listings searching for people with AI prowess in the new year.  

“It’s all about striking the right balance between leveraging AI while providing adequate human input and oversight and bringing employees up to speed on the technology,” Thompson says. “Through transparent communication, continuous learning, and upskilling programs, employers can educate their employees on how these new AI tools work within their organizations to give them the confidence and skills to both use the technology properly and not feel their jobs and roles are at risk.”   

Thompson adds that it’s crucial to listen to employee feedback on how these new technologies are working for them and make sure they feel involved throughout any deployments. Having a clear AI strategy in place that the entire company is aligned to can help ensure a worry-free adoption of AI technology.  

As companies consider how to leverage AI technology for their business goals, some have leaned into automating administrative tasks, giving employees more time to focus on high-touch tasks. Companies may want to automate customer relationship management (CRM) platforms to create a three-way dialogue between clients, employees, and AI. Thompson says that this could mean the end of CRMs as companies currently know them.  

“As AI continues to evolve, less powerful technologies that are not integrated with AI technology will become less relevant simply because of their lack of capabilities in comparison,” says Thompson. “It’s the continued introduction of AI that will change customer relationship management over time, as the technology can sit within CRMs or potentially play alongside a relationship or service experience.”  

Personalization and Financial Wellness 

With employee engagement at the forefront of HR strategy going into 2024, employers will likely continue to personalize their benefits approach to cater to individual elements of the employee life cycle, like going out on leave or getting a promotion, Thompson says.  

For example, centralizing benefits information into common places, like portals, with built-in intelligence provides employees with a single source of truth that serves relevant information tailored to the individual. This experience is based on what is known about the employee, including their data and click-through patterns.  

Thompson says that it’s also important to leverage data and AI to help send messages to employees at the right time. A new hire would need their onboarding materials and benefits information when they’re brought on, while existing employees might need benefits reminders quarterly.  

“Partnering with benefits providers that serve the specific needs of one’s employees is another option,” Thompson says. “For example, say a company is seeing a spike in payroll advances and a trend of people leaving for a new job that pays 10 cents more per hour. This tells the employer that the immediate needs of their employees are related to their finances and therefore they should partner with a benefits provider that puts a greater emphasis on financial care.” 

While helping employees save and plan for retirement has been a historical function of HR, addressing the immediate financial needs of workers is often overlooked despite its role in a person’s overall health, Thompson says. Poor financial health is one of the root causes of stress, which accounts for between 75% and 90% of all doctor’s visits.  

Implementing financial care solutions to help employees address those immediate financial needs is a viable way for employers to reduce doctor visits and keep workers holistically healthy, ultimately benefiting a company’s bottom line. Programs that enable bite-sized, personalized information to be delivered reactively at the point of need is the key to meaningful success, Thompson says. Having a robust financial care program is especially important given that the costs for employer-covered healthcare are expected to jump 6.5% next year.  

“It’s crucial that HR leaders ensure employees are continuously educated on the benefits provided to them,” Thompson says. “This includes tailored retirement planning guidance, employee assistance programs, and assisting those employees in connecting with the right programs or individuals to receive the help they need.” 

Half of Frontline Workers Feel Expendable

A report from O.C. Tanner finds that employees who spend little to no time behind a desk often feel underappreciated, despite being essential to a company’s success. 

By Maggie Mancini

O.C. Tanner’s 2024 Global Culture Report finds that 80% of workers lack access to tools, technology, and opportunities necessary to connect with their organizations.  

Gary Beckstrand, author and vice president at O.C. Tanner, says that the findings uncover two major discrepancies in the experience of the 80% of workers who spend little to any time behind a desk compared to their corporate counterparts. Beckstrand says that rectifying these issues would significantly improve their sense of belonging.  

“The first is access, or the availability of systems, resources, benefits, and people to do a job, do it well, and be taken care of at work,” Beckstrand says. “The second is enablement, or the degree to which employees have autonomy, influence, and a voice at work.”  

When looking at the widening gap between the employee experience of the 80% and their corporate counterparts, workers in the 80% are nearly twice as likely to feel they have no options when accepting a job. Only 35% feel they have the freedom to take time away from work for personal errands, and half feel expendable at work.  

Two of every five workers in the 80% say they are viewed as inferior by employees in the office. As many (35%) report senior leaders minimize or dismiss their ideas, and 39% say their work is not valued as highly as office work. 

“The good news is that when the 80% have high access and enablement, they report a more than 208% increase in the desire to stay for more than three years. And when they feel seen and valued, they report a 592% increase in the odds of doing great work,” Beckstrand says. “The key is to find ways to improve both access and enablement and to continually recognize the 80% for now only the work they do, but how they uniquely contribute to success.”    

The research shows that people-centric solutions are the ones that win and endure, every employee wants to feel seen and valued, and resilience must exceed surviving the next challenge.  

Key findings from the report are below.  

  • Only 27% of leaders feel strongly prepared to help their people navigate change. 
  • Employees who perceive their leaders to have the tools to help them manage change are five times more likely to feel a sense of community, six times more likely to thrive at work, 10 times more likely to feel a strong sense of trust, and 76% less likely to experience burnout.  
  • When leaders have the tools to help employees manage change, their own risk of burnout decreases by 73%.  

As companies across the globe look to balance employee expectations around remote work with the importance of face-to-face interaction, most frontline workers are not afforded opportunities for flexible work. Beckstrand says that there are still ways for companies to provide some form of flexibility for workers who must work in-person.  

“Frontline workers fully understand that you can’t stock shelves, manufacture products, or drive a truck from home,” Beckstrand says. “They are not looking for the same level of flexibility as their corporate counterparts. They are just asking for reasonable flexibility based on their roles, responsibilities, and personal preferences to take care of important personal needs outside of work.”   

The solution, Beckstrand says, is not equally flexibility. Rather, it’s equitable flexibility, which acknowledges that flexibility will look differently throughout the organization based on roles and responsibilities.  

This is achievable when an organization prioritizes it and establishes guidelines, but also allows leader autonomy to determine how to best address flexibility based on their department and team needs.   

“Leaders who involve their employees in addressing what flexibility looks like in their environments empower their people with more governance over when, where, and how they do their work that strengthens connection, belonging, and fulfillment.”   

Industry Insights

From our Flash Report, 2023 CHRO Compensation Report

Read the full report here