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Embrace the Remote Work Era and Transform HR for Good

Beep, beep, beep! That’s the sound of the alarm clock. It’s 7:45 am, and you have an 8:00 am meeting—you’re late! Oh wait, you’re working from home today. So actually, you’re right on time. You roll out of bed, rub the sleep out of your eyes, put on your finest loungewear, brush your hair, fire up the Keurig machine, grab your laptop, and press the power button. You find yourself sitting in the Zoom waiting room at 7:59 am. Huzzah! Welcome to the remote-work era.

 

Table of Contents

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Have we entered a remote work era?

Remote work is not a new phenomenon. You may be surprised how common it was before COVID-19:

  • 52% of workers worked remotely at least sometimes.
  • 34% of workers worked remotely at least one day a  week.
  • 17% of workers worked remotely full time.

Of course, COVID-19 shifted the paradigm. Now a full 44% of workers work remotely full time, and only 34%—just over one-third—of workers never work remotely. Considering how much of the American economy is based around the service industry, that’s a stunning statistic.

The question on everyone’s mind is this: how much of this will stick around?

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. COVID-19 forced companies to realize the benefits of a remote work model.

Previously, companies were filled with anti-remote-work bias (“Are they working hard, or hardly working?” sound familiar to anyone who has asked for partial remote privileges?) These companies would have never realized the benefits of remote-work models because they were resistant to making that type of change.

But now they have. And the benefits to employers and employees alike are apparent and even more evident to companies as they begin to plan for the future.

While some employers will more or less get back to business as usual at the end of the pandemic, many will take this as an opportunity to create a better way to work. A full 83% of employers say the shift to remote work has been a positive one for their company, according to a Jan 2021 survey from PwC. Like many organizations in 2020, a client in the manufacturing industry was facing a challenge. Like many organizations in 2020, a client in the manufacturing industry was facing a challenge.

What are the top benefits of remote work?

Let’s start with the most basic question: job performance. PwC’s research found that remote work has driven gains in performance. Whether the topic is collaboration, securing new business, coaching employees to succeed, onboarding new hires, or corporate innovation, more employers than not have concluded that remote work has been a boon.

Corporate real estate costs.

If 50% of a company’s workforce is remote, how does that impact corporate expenditures on office space? The obvious answer: companies will spend a lot less. PwC found that 87% of executives surveyed expect to make changes to their real estate strategy over the next 12 months.

Employees have spoken.

  • Many feel burnt out by a 100% remote model (only 29% want to maintain it forever).
  • But few want to go back to a 100% office model (only 8% want to never work remotely).
  • Over 50% of employees want to work from home three days per week or more.
  • And, a full 84% want to work remotely at least one day a week.

Competing for talent.

Given the popularity among employees, employers that offer remote work options will have a significant edge in the competition for talent. Many employees will break ties towards companies with remote flexibility, and some will even exclude inflexible employers altogether.

Helping employees reach their life goals.

Finally, employees have broadened their horizons as they looked toward a future where remote work is the norm. Younger employees, in particular, have put off families, homeownership, and other typical milestones, in service of their careers. This dip into remote work has made many realize they can have their cake and eat it too. Remote work enables them to live in more affordable suburbs—or even states— where they don’t have to manage a daily commute into a job in a city. Remote work also enables them to meet both family and career obligations simultaneously.

And that’s not all. When you poll employers and employees, you will find many other benefits of remote work. There are drawbacks, of course, but the data shows that most think that the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

Addressing these challenges is paramount to creating high-performing remote teams.

While our previous understanding of HR transformation was focused on talent acquisition and retention, change management, and employee development, the remote-work era adds additional complexity: organizations will need to invest in the right people, benefits, communication, and technology to navigate this next phase of the American workplace.

In the upcoming sections, we’ve gotten more specific. Keep reading, and you’ll hear about our recommendations around these three areas:

  • How HR professionals will need to change.
  • How HR organizations will need to change.
  • How employers will need to change.

How will HR’s role be transformed with the remote work era?

The most straightforward answer: there will be new problems and new opportunities. But it will require transformation.

HR transformation is not a new concept; for over a decade, we’ve focused on transforming HR departments from being an administrative function to being a strategic advantage.

Historically, mature HR teams and functions have focused on improving operating efficiency and administrative effectiveness. But that’s table stakes these days.

 

The Five Main Downsides to Remote Work

Let’s step back and take a look at the challenges that come with remote work.

1. People feel isolated or invisible.

The novelty of remote work—and not having a commute—wears off after a while. Soon, people realize that work provides a day-to-day social element to their life. This type of ad hoc relationship building is often an essential part of promotions in the modern workplace.

remote-work-downsides2. People feel like the workday is unending.

There’s a ritual to office work. You wake up, get ready, drive to work, complete your work, then drive home, and get on with the rest of your day. These routines create clean lines that separate “work” from “home.” But when you’re working from home, that ritual goes away, and employees can feel like they’re “on call” 24/7. Worse, some employees will feel pressure to appear busy to overcompensate for the stigma attached to a remote worker.

3. People don’t have the right technology or setup at home.

Employees may be moving from a full-size desk with two screens and enterprise wifi to laptops on the kitchen table using their $40/month internet provider. While remote work is reported to be more productive than office work, this reduction in setup is the most common reported reason when productivity suffers.

4. Teams can feel fragmented or disconnected.

When employees aren’t in the flow of in-office traffic, they’re going to miss impromptu lunches, coffees, or spontaneous deskside brainstorms. So it can occasionally feel like they’re not getting the full picture or like they’re the last to find out about things.

5. Creating delightful employee-engagement experiences is difficult.

When everyone is in the same office, it’s easy to create events or spontaneous moments of employee engagement that build culture and connectedness. When you hire the right people, you often don’t even have to try— employees will drive that relationship building. But with remote workforces, attaining high employee engagement will demand a more active approach.

Six HR Skillsets for the Remote Work Era

For individual HR professionals, the greatest leverage won’t be in specific policies or technologies, but skillsets. HR professionals should improve their skills in the following areas, and hiring managers should keep these in mind. The best-performing HR professionals will be excellent in these areas: 

Creativity

Face time can’t simply be replaced with FaceTime. Office happy hours can’t be replaced with Zoom happy hours. Engaging remote employees is a creative opportunity.

Active and Collaborative

Passive culture building, communication, and collaboration don’t work in a remote world. You will need to be comfortable taking an active role in all of these areas.

Content Provider

Whether you create it or curate it, giving your employees content—benefits guides, explainer videos, training, webinars, checklists—will help them reach their personal, professional, and team goals.

Setting Flex-pectations

Remote work demands flexibility and a culture devoted to outcomes, not inputs and clock-ins. But setting expectations leads to success. Threading the needle between flexibility and expectations is critical.

E-motional Intelligence

Not every employee will have the ideal setup or home situation to allow for secluded, uninterrupted work. Remain empathetic, approachable, available, and know when to listen to complaints vs. solving them.

Digitally Savvy

The average HR department is going to see its tech stack grow two to three times in the coming years. Benefits fairs will have virtual replacements. HR will need to pick up, learn, navigate, explain, and train on new technology.

How HR organizations will need to change

While HR professionals will have to build on the skills that will be most suited for remote workforces, HR organizations as a whole will also have to build their competency and policies in some specific ways.

Cultivate a results-oriented culture, not an input-oriented culture.

With an in-person workforce, it’s tempting to focus on inputs: your employees arrive early, stay late, and when you walk past their desk, you don’t see them on Facebook. This is more of an input-oriented culture: you think that if they are behaving in the right way, results will follow. But that’s often not the case. And, in any event, that type of approach doesn’t work in a remote setting.

Brian Kopp, chief of research in the HR practice at Gartner, had this to say:

“Employers should design their remote- work policies around outcomes, not workflows and processes. The idea is that employees are expected to accomplish their goals, but how they do it and when they do it is flexible. Look at your current policy and see what makes sense in this situation, and, if you’re not sure, lean toward flexibility and trust as opposed to measuring and monitoring your employees. If employees are not given flexibility, it will be harder for them in their personal lives and they will feel that they are not trusted, which will come back to bite the organization.”
Brian Kopp
Chief of Research, HR @ Gartner

Master the 4 Es (Empathy, Education, Engagement, Evaluation)

In times of workplace uncertainty, everyone looks to HR for reassurance and to take action. As Bill Gates said in his book Business at the Speed of Thought, “Like a human being, a company has to have an internal communication mechanism, a ‘nervous system,’ to coordinate its actions.”

We’re expected to make order from chaos, even as we face the same stresses and fears as our colleagues. We also have the added challenge of being virtual and planning for a future workplace we’ve never seen before. One where our office setup looks different, where we have to put new protocols in place, create new travel policies, rearrange office floor plans, and so much more.

So how do we do it all?

“In my experience, putting a laser focus on foundational communication principles helps to prioritize immediate needs and long-term goals. The pillars I rely on are empathy, education, engagement, and evaluation,” says Heather Smith, Chief People Officer here at Flimp.


Empathy.
The introduction of remote work brings with it a range of variables that affect your employees’ work—childcare, home environment, stress, housekeeping, isolation—and organizational empathy is genuinely essential. As an HR organization, you should be taking a pivotal role in checking in with employees. You should be working directly with leadership to make sure they have an understanding of what their teams are struggling with and that they are armed with the necessary anecdotes and data to keep them tuned in and empathetic to the situation.

Education. Now isn’t the time to stonewall or sugar coat. It’s crucial to maintain a consistent flow of information and provide as many supporting resources as possible. Are there changes in policies or benefits you need to convey? Changes in office procedures? Do you have resources that will help employees with personal wellness? Communicate often and in a way employees will be most likely to review and retain that information. Whether you create a new company resource site, hold one-on-one meetings, send daily emails or text updates, be sure to provide facts and keep the lines of communication open. This creates a trusted, positive flow of information that leaves less room for misinterpretation and higher productivity from a more aware and optimistic team.

Engagement. Putting your employees’ needs first will help them feel more supported and more engaged in the job at hand. When you reach out for your check-ins, talk about what tasks and goals feel realistic in their current situations. Keep the focus on outcomes, and work with employees to understand how you can support and improve their skills and productivity.

Evaluation. Finally, be proactive in asking for feedback. This demonstrates to your team that you care about their needs and actively try to make things better. Highlight areas where the company is doing well but ask where you need to do more. What do they wish they could change about working here? Are there benefits we don’t provide that you need? Now is not the time to ignore the employee experience and its impact on engagement levels.

Don’t just replace “face time” with “FaceTime.”

We’re figuring it out as we go along here, but there’s one thing we have definitely figured out in this first year of this new era: you can’t just replace face time with FaceTime.

As an organization, you want to avoid falling into the trap of corporate culture skeuomorphism.

What is skeuomorphism? Simply put, it’s when a designer designs a piece of software or an app to mimic its real-world counterpart. However, trying to mimic a physical experience in a virtual environment often simply creates a poor imitation.

App makers in the late 2000s fell into this trap as we moved into the smartphone revolution.

  • Does a notes app need to look like you’re writing on • a yellow legal pad?
  • Does an ebook app need to look like you’re picking books off of a bookshelf?
  • Does a recording app need to look like a physical microphone?

No, and by doing so, you’re not designing for the new context. Virtual experiences are unique and different from their physical counterparts.

Whether you realize it or not, HR organizations are design organizations. You design recruiting processes, you design onboarding programs and materials, you design the employee journey.

And it’s tempting to fall into the same skeuomorphism trap as we move to the remote-work era because it’s simple: just create remote imitations of familiar in-person experiences. But that doesn’t work, and you will quickly realize it, and so will your employees. The last thing you want is for your employees to roll their eyes or feel obligated to participate in an event meant to engage them.

Example: The Zoom Happy Hour.

There’s a good chance during the pandemic that you’ve hosted a “happy hour” over Zoom. You all get into the same Zoom room, maybe with a drink in hand, and some of you try not to talk over each other too much, while others in the room are distracted and clearly wrapping up their to-do list before heading off for the weekend.

But you can feel that it’s a forced experience, and you know that it’s a pale imitation of the office happy hour. You should break down what makes the office happy hour special—unwinding after a long week, getting to know people you don’t know that well, the chance to build organic connections outside of their projects, that most happy hours are actually a collection of small group or one-on-one conversations—and design an experience that achieves those results in a remote setting.

One thing you can do is try OnZoom. OnZoom is a new Zoom feature where hosts create engaging virtual experiences like cooking classes hosted by chefs, cocktail-making classes hosted by bartenders, improv comedy shows from well-known improv troupes, and more.

Become experts at remote onboarding

Onboarding new employees can be a challenge in the best of times. We all know what our first day in a new job feels like. The unfamiliar surroundings coupled with new faces and unknown technology. It can make for an overwhelming combination. We don’t need to tell you that onboarding is essential.

A study from SHRM found that:

69%

69% of employees are more likely to stay with a company for three years if they experienced great onboarding.

50%

Organizations with a standard onboarding process experience 50% greater new-hire productivity.

54%

54% of companies with onboarding programs reported higher employee engagement.

It’s even harder to make remote team members feel welcome and integrated into a team. That means that, if you nail your remote-onboarding experience, your team will have a significant competitive advantage in the war for talent recruitment and retention.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Create and deliver a welcome kit. It should include their email address and login instructions, an itinerary or calendar for their first few weeks, a checklist of assignments and goals for their first month, and a list of company resources, software, and applications, with the login information for each.

  • Create an FAQs document. Use it to answer common questions about the company’s culture and processes.

  • Send a day-one care package to welcome them to the team. You may want to include treats, swag, or technology that will improve their workspace.

  • Set up one-on-ones to build familiarity and rapport. If you’re hiring multiple people simultaneously, it’s useful to treat them as a cohort that attends many of the same introduction meetings. Collaborative learning is a great way to build relationships.

  • Check in regularly. Encourage honesty, trans- parency, and vulnerability to make sure that you’ve given your new member precisely what they need to be their best selves and hit the milestones outlined in your onboarding plan.
  • Provide managers with the training to effectively manage their remote employees, and make sure they have the technical know-how to use remote-collaboration tools.
  • Find an opportunity to meet in person. It’s a good idea to find a time as soon as possible that your new remote employees can get together with their team in person; it provides a foundation for their relationship with their team and your organization. If you’re using a hybrid model, you should have the employee come into the office more regularly in the early stages of onboarding and then scale down as they get acclimated.

If you nail your remote-onboarding experience, your team will have a significant competitive advantage in the war for talent recruitment and retention.

Replace your benefits fair

Most employees have a vast range of benefits available to them these days. Employers often host benefits fairs (or sessions) to bring employees together and learn about their benefits. But this doesn’t work that well in a remote or hybrid work environment.

Luckily, there’s no reason that benefits communication has to happen in this type of setting. Many employees (especially your more introverted ones) never even liked it in the first place.

Are you looking for inspiration? SegalBenz has an excellent breakdown on benefits fairs and how you can replace them for remote workforces. Here at Flimp, our clients have had a lot of success using our platform to quickly build benefits microsites, and we’ve even built them on behalf of our clients.

How employers will need to change

Employers broadly have a significant role to serve in this process as well.

Update your benefits package

You will want to change your benefits mix to reflect this new phase. PwC polled employees and employers on the most important issues for them
in a remote-work environment and asked each group to assess the employer’s performance (e.g., the employees rated their employers, and employers conducted a self-assessment.) Here were their top findings:

  • Employers have a lot of catching up to do in providing child-care benefits.
  • Employers need to provide better and more consistent training.
  • Employers need to better support and promote their team’s mental health.
  • Employers need to provide home office equipment.

This research lays out some clear focus areas: supporting families, enabling mental health services, talent development, and supporting your employee’s efforts to build a productive work environment with themselves.

Many of the employers we work with have also found success with health and wellness programs, remote working stipends, home service memberships (like house cleaning from Handy), meal delivery, technology upgrades, and regular get-togethers or get-aways.

Upgrade your benefits communication

Without benefit fairs or your HR team being a short walk away, active benefits communication is far more useful than more passive approaches. Employers should invest in tools/solutions (communications platforms, decision support) and content (videos, benefits guides, benefits portals) to help their employees:

  • Understand their benefits.
  • Determine which benefits are right for them.
  • Best leverage their benefits to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Recruit and train for new skillsets

Most people will adjust to remote work, but some will adjust better than others because they have the right skills and personality traits to succeed naturally. For others, you’re going to need to train them. For future hires, you may focus on making sure these traits are present:

  • Agile. There will be change. How will they handle that?
  • Resilient. When things get tough, when communication breaks down, how do they overcome that?
  • Collaborative. Do they play well with others, and what role do they typically serve in a team setting? Can they translate their collaboration to a remote environment?
  • Autonomous. While collaboration is important, autonomy is equally important; can they work solo, complete tasks, hit their milestones, and drive results without their manager popping by their desk?
  • Self-starters. Are they innovative or receptive to new ideas, projects, and challenges? When they receive a new challenge, do they enthusiastically get to work on that, or does it worry them?
  • Tech-savvy. Do they have demonstrated proficiency with picking up different technologies?
  • Empathetic. Do they lead their relationships through empathy?

Solve problems with cross-functional, multi-generational teams

When Apple redesigned their HQ in 2015, they had a central goal in mind: they wanted to ensure “serendipitous interactions.” Even though the campus was 2.8 million square feet and housed 3,000 employees, they wanted to design it in a way that employees across functions and generations would “run” into each other and have the nuggets of innovation start.

That’s important. Every employee is unique, living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own experience, knowledge, ambitions, friends, routines, worries. Finding a way to bring them together to solve problems is one of the best ways to ensure your organization’s growth.

For example, you may be struggling to figure out how to engage employees remotely. By coincidence, you run into your coworker, and you both realize that they spent five years at an event marketing agency. You buy them a cup of coffee, and they’re able to inspire you with tons of ideas to build engaging remote experiences.

But you don’t need to be in Apple’s “spaceship campus” to achieve that—you just need cross-functional, multi-generational teams.

For innovation, especially the type that will drive your business forward or into new directions, assembling teams that span departments, roles, experience level, race, gender, sexuality, and age, will ensure a diverse set of perspectives. Diverse perspectives help you hone in on solutions that disconnected team members wouldn’t have.

Luckily for remote teams, this also ensures that remote members can work with folks across the entire organization, a vital method for making them feel integrated and engaged.

Quality of interaction, not quantity.

While your remote team will have fewer opportunities for day-to-day interaction—water cooler chats, random team lunches, after-work drinks, work jam sessions, carpooling—you can focus on the quality of interaction. Rather than spending your budget constantly throughout the year on small employee engagement opportunities, you may instead put it toward larger, more memorable experiences.

The remote work era is an opportunity to change everything. For the better.

The remote work era does bring uncertainty, change, and transition. But there is one thing that is for certain: the benefits do outweigh the drawbacks. Employees love the flexibility and the way that remote work enables them to meet their life goals better. Employers have near-universally found greater productivity and performance. The best companies, the best HR organizations, and the best HR professionals, will adapt to this new landscape and use it as an opportunity to become a strategic center of the company.

How Flimp Helps HR Teams Navigate the Remote Work Era

Over the last 10 years, we’ve built tools and processes that allow HR teams to transform into digital, multi-channel, internal communication machines.

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