HR can rethink the ways of work by learning from the remote experiment ushered in by the pandemic.
By Ray Baumruk, Susie Rowe, and Dilip Nair
With most major enterprises still having a large percentage of their employees working from home while the COVID-19 pandemic persists, it’s clear that the adoption of remote work has been broader and deeper than anyone could have expected. Plus, there’s a growing consensus among employees who believe and expect that remote work—either fully virtual or part of a hybrid model—should be made a permanent part of their work experience.
This trend is revealed in Alight’s annual Workforce Mindset Study®, where 85% of newly-remote employees say they would like to continue working remotely due to the eliminated commute and the added flexibility to address personal and professional commitments for a more balanced life. Forty-two percent of employees even expect that remote work with virtual interactions will become the dominant work environment within the next two years.
For their part, employers across industries have seen the potential of enabling remote work, not just for the duration of the pandemic, but as a fixture in their future operations. Many organizations quickly realized some of the benefits, including greater agility in talent management, access to broader and more diverse talent pools, increased productivity, and reduced operational and real estate expenses.
Of course, remote work is not fail-safe. For employees, not all roles are conducive to or even possible through virtual environments, and for those lucky enough to keep their jobs and work remotely, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and burnout can manifest. For employers, there can be unintended limits placed on collaboration and innovation activities as well as customer service.
HR leaders are at the center of this seismic structural shift in the ways of working. They’re challenged to improve employee well-being and engagement while productivity trends and marketplace realities push them to reimagine their workplaces so they’re more adaptable and resilient.
Here are four strategies that will help HR leaders ensure that the future workplace is as productive and enriching as possible for organizations and their people.
1. Redefine productivity and expectations. According to Alight’s research, nearly one-third of employees say they’re working more hours compared to before the pandemic, with an average increase of nearly one extra day per week. Engaged employees who feel their organization is working for them will take a more active role in its growth, which is why employers must provide clarity and alignment on availability, workloads, and outcomes. That way, organizations will successfully place employee well-being at the center and meet their business imperatives.
2. Rethink the physical and digital. The pandemic has forced many organizations to reconsider the ways their physical workspaces are utilized. As the vaccine takes hold, the remaining office footprint should be less focused on supporting individual work tasks and more focused on reinforcing an organization’s overall culture and purpose, possibly through experience hubs and locations for employee training.
And with greater proportions of the workforce able to perform their individual work tasks remotely, employers must also allocate enough resources to their technology infrastructure to allow for collaboration among employees who are working toward common goals but reside in different time zones.
According to the Workforce Mindset Study®, one in three employees say their employer introduced new technology and tools during the pandemic and 56% say they have effective tools to communicate with other employees beyond email.
3. Cultivate relationships and true connections. Despite being “connected,” remote settings can take away key elements of peer-to-peer relationships such as presence, vulnerability, and other forms of body language. While it may require more effort from employers, Alight research reveals a strong desire for human-centered experiences among employees. With only 27% of employees considering their overall experience to be “great,” the workforce clearly wants more flexibility and support from their employers. Organizations should provide virtual experiences where different ideas and personalities can converge and employees can find fulfillment outside of a 9-to-5 schedule.
4. Enable continuous feedback and evaluation. Employees are struggling to meet the demands of work and family, and those challenges have mounted to create a perfect storm of financial hardship, mental stress, and health concerns. In particular, 43% of working parents say it has been more difficult to manage work and personal commitments.
Enabling employees with more frequent opportunities to provide feedback on their situations and experiences helps build relationships and empowers workers through empathy. By employing a continuous feedback model, which lends itself to a virtual environment, managers can discuss obstacles and opportunities more regularly with their reports, as well as check on personal well-being, thereby building trust with employees and increasing their psychological safety.
As HR leaders look to the future of work, one thing is certain: There’s a direct correlation between the success of an organization and how employees perceive their experience, especially if they’ve shared in its design. Healthy and engaged workers are the most productive, which is why HR leaders should seize this opportunity to design and deliver a balanced approach that equally supports both remote and hybrid work, as that investment could pay off long after the pandemic subsides.
Ray Baumruk is vice president of employee experience design, research and insights, and Susie Rowe and Dilip Nair co-lead talent management for Alight Solutions.