Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted workplaces, it also presents a historic opportunity to rethink work for the better.
After working from home for nearly 20 months, many employees who’ve been given the chance to return to the office in person, even for one day a week, are finding they prefer to stay remote and say it makes them more productive. According to a new Gallup analysis, 30% of potential work-from-work employees said they would prefer to “never” come into the office during the week.
But some people feel isolated and disconnected from their teams at home, the workplace version of “FOMO” (fear of missing out). Some employees have living conditions that are not conducive to work, such as cramped spaces and noisy roommates.
As they grapple with these questions, companies and their staffs are reevaluating the best ways to move forward. The omicron variant has recently added another layer of uncertainty to return-to-work plans. Many companies are, once again, delaying office-opening plans. For example, this week, Ford Motor Co. announced that it was shifting the start date of its hybrid-work model to March.
In the PR community, agencies and in-house leaders have an opportunity to listen to their teams, lead with empathy and imagine a better future.
Here are considerations for successful remote and hybrid work:
• Better work-life balance: Whether you prefer to work more days at home or more days in the office, hybrid work moves many employees closer to balancing their professional and personal lives.
• Reduced commuting time: Less commuting means less time wasted and less money spent on car maintenance and fuel.
• Decreased stress: In a study published in September, researchers in Japan found that remote work can reduce psychological and physical stress responses. On the other hand, remote work can also lead to social isolation and marginalization, which raise stress for workers, the study said. Further, full-time remote work increases the risk of presenteeism, the lost productivity that occurs when employees are not fully functioning, the researchers found.
While hybrid work models have positive attributes, they can also cause employee burnout, loneliness and feelings of isolation. Given these mixed sentiments about hybrid and work-from-home plans, it’s important to find the right approach.
Here are some tips to ease the transition:
• Have increased empathy. Start by surveying your staff about their work preferences. A PR agency in Minneapolis that I know polled its teams and was surprised to learn how many employees preferred working remotely most days, including post-COVID. The agency accommodated the feedback in ways that align with its business goals.
• Avoid constant changes. Although difficult to avoid as COVID protocols shift and with concerns over the omicron variant, switching too often between in-person and remote or hybrid-work plans creates instability. When the staff feels the ground moving beneath their feet, they struggle. As much as possible, make workplace decisions based on specific, widely available data such as a sustained rise or fall in local coronavirus infections. That way, changes in company policy are more predictable.
• Don’t treat every team the same. Teams function in different ways. Some, such as writers and developers, worked well remotely even before the pandemic. But workgroups that lean heavily on collaboration — strategists and creative teams, for example — benefit from being in close proximity to one another for at least part of the time.
• Motivate remote workers. Employees who work remotely sometimes worry that their efforts won’t be acknowledged and rewarded, which can drain their motivation. Clearly state that in-office workers won’t be given advantages for advancement. Speaking of productivity, avoid micromanaging and over-monitoring remote staff. By trusting people to get their work done, you’ll be rewarded with motivated employees who want to justify your faith in them.
• Restructure your office. Given today’s emphasis on video-conferencing to communicate with clients and vendors, consider adding more small, private office spaces equipped for Zoom and Teams calls. At the same time, make sure staff feel safe in larger group settings such as all-company meetings. Provide masks and socially distanced seating for those that want them. When possible, take advantage of safer outdoor spaces.
The perfect template for hybrid work doesn’t exist. But there is one that best fits your work culture and ongoing needs. You’ll likely get there in fits and starts. But the effort will be worth it, as hybrid-work models lead to happier, more productive teams.
David Olson is senior vice president at Brandpoint, a content-first digital marketing agency that has partnered with the PR industry for the past 25 years.
[Illustration: tarik vision]