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.
A 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.”