Hybrid Work could be trending in 2022 as Back To Office is still an uncharted territory for HR, and Employee Experience takes priority
“I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then,” said Alice to the Mock Turtle, in Lewis Carroll’s iconic fantasy novel, Alice In Wonderland. The same words are now being echoed by employees across the world when their organizations are asking them to return to office. While some are showing passive resistance, others are joining the great resignation, as work-life balance takes on an entirely new meaning to employees.
Human Resource (HR) teams across organizations are faced with the biggest challenge in the post-COVID-19 era, as companies decide to shift partially to Back To Office, requiring employees to report to office at least two or three days a week, and in some cases be at their base location. Employees had become used to WFH (Work From Home), an abbreviation that has become a part of the popular lexicon, or Work From Anywhere in the last 18 months, now there is a passive reluctance on the part of many employees in India to return to office.
In the US and in parts of the developed economies, we are witnessing large scale resignations as millions of workers walk away from their jobs. Over the past several months, the US has seen millions of workers quit their jobs — 4.4 million in September 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The resignation rate in the US is now at a two-decade high. In India, IT service companies are facing an unprecedentedly high attrition level. According to research firm Gartner, the attrition rate rose from 10% in 2020 to 20% in 2021. Some IT service providers are even battling higher attrition rates of up to 30%. The situation is so severe that some companies are failing to meet their project delivery deadlines, because of shortage of employees.
Work has changed for good
The last 18 months have changed work in a way that is dramatically different from what it was in the pre-pandemic days; and companies are finding it difficult to pilot through this reality. In India, employees who came from the rural parts of the country, to make a living in the technology hubs in Gurgaon, Bangalore, or Pune, welcomed WFH policies. They went back to their families in the villages, in the small towns of the country, lived with their parents, and took care of them. They saved their PG (paying guest) rentals, that increased their salaries which added to the family income. They are not looking forward to coming back to the same cramped rooms, with questionable hygiene, which they shared with half-a-dozen others.
Some employees are arguing, that if productivity has increased during WFH, then why return to office. Others are missing office, looking for co-working opportunity and feeling nostalgic for their water-cooler moments. HR is having to navigate this great uncertainty with no past experience of ever responding to a similar situation – it’s completely uncharted. It is perhaps time for enterprises to now move away from the office versus remote work debate. Work is what you do, not where you are.
Attracting and retaining the best talent will require businesses to enable employees to work from any location securely and productively, whether that be in or away from the office. Dr. Kankana Mukhopadhyay, Professor, Human Resource of Praxis Business School observed that some employees are enjoying working from home and are still very productive. Calling them back to the workplace may affect them psychologically and in turn their productivity.
Employee Experience takes priority
The phrase “employee experience” along with a new abbreviation, “EX”, has suddenly gained currency. Improving the employee experience has become a business priority. Different business functions, from HR, IT and facilities must work together in helping organizations become more employee centric. This is reshaping everything from office architecture, to interior design, making health & safety of employees the cornerstone of the present and future of work. Strategies are bringing together elements such as technology experience, physical workplace experience, and well-being.
In building a picture of what employee experience looks like, it is important that businesses consider not only the outputs and tasks people do, but the human and emotional cost involved in producing that output. Sentiment-based perspectives can be difficult to distil into a single metric, hence the need for effective management and communication mechanisms.
Work will be from anywhere
Organizations have accepted the fact that the future of work will be hybrid, and will involve work from anywhere. As more work takes place away from the confines of the traditional office and network, businesses must invest in connectivity capabilities that are secure, reliable, and transformative. As part of any workplace transformation or mobile workplace improvement effort, it is vital that enterprises consider connectivity capabilities alongside those of productivity, management, and security. Going forward, all these will be vital in delivering the best employee experiences possible.
Providing employees with the tools, connectivity, and well-being support they need, must be a priority: The shift in work styles that many employees are demanding presents a unique and quite diverse set of technical and business challenges that will need to be addressed. Simply ignoring these demands or resisting the change is not an optimal approach. Instead, businesses must engage with different segments of the workforce in understanding and supporting their needs. Ensuring employees have access to the equipment, connectivity, and support structures they need to work productively, collaboratively, and securely from different locations is vital.
Dr Mukhopadhyay points out that instilling the digital mindset among employees in an important element of the new ways of working, and that requires extensive teamwork. Hybrid work environments provide new ways for employees to collaborate productively, but leaders must intentionally create those opportunities. The four work models that support hybrid collaboration are:
- when teams are co-located, contributing to meetings in a shared space.
- when teams are distributed, but participating in virtual meetings.
- when teams are in shared spaces, but not working at the same time and
- when teams are distributed, and individuals are engaged in deep-focus work.
HR in its new role needs to chart collaboration not just by location, but also by time spent. HR must democratize access to all four work modes, not just co-located ones.
Remote working tools a must-have
Enterprises must invest in new tools to help them better capture, measure and positively influence employee experiences – as remote working has improved employee productivity and collaboration like never before. New solutions, such as digital employee experience platforms, are helping businesses better understand what the employee experience looks like, and enterprises should look to adopt these types of capabilities. Additionally, teams like HR and IT must work closely on employee experience initiatives.
Companies need to work with partners that deliver an integrated set of technical capabilities, in addition to providing services that help maximize the value delivered. Workplace transformation and modernization is a challenging but important undertaking. In addition to technology vendors, enterprises should also seek the help of service provider partners that deliver digital workplace solutions, services, and expertise that helps businesses navigate the complexities. Leaders need to think of the digital workplace not as a single thing or technology, but more an ecosystem of different capabilities: Digital workplace services and solutions are attracting interest from organizations that are looking to modernize, reinvent, and improve the way that employees work.
Return-to-office can’t be a command
The way return-to-office communication is designed will be critical in achieving the highest levels of employee experience. Treat it as engagement, not communication. Return-to-office announcements shouldn’t just be memos shared one time by the CEO. Instead, leaders at all levels of the organization (e.g., senior leaders, middle managers) need to actively engage their teams in two-way dialogue, both to share information and create an upward channel for employees to discuss what it means for them and voice any suggestions, thoughts, or concerns surrounding new ways of working. To do this, one professional services firm created a monthly, hour-long “Ask me anything” where employees could ask questions and connect with senior executives.
Consulting firm, McKinsey feels that return-to-office should not be a commandment. Leaders should acknowledge that return-to-office plans are likely to evolve and become comfortable with admitting when earlier plans did not achieve the desired effect or had to be changed. With the future course of COVID-19 uncertain and leaders learning in real time what operating models work best for their organization, return-to-office plans and announcements need to be living documents that are constantly evaluated, refreshed, and re-communicated. The reality is that employees today, like Alice, are different from what they were before the pandemic. They’ll never go back to being the same!