None of us saw COVID-19 coming, and it has redefined the workplace. All of us, including every single one of our clients, are adjusting to remote work models. With a year of COVID upheaval and workforce behavior observations under our belts—it feels like an opportune time to consider the frameworks and tools that will best serve our employees and our organizations going forward.

Remote work has its benefits: greater flexibility for employees and expansion of talent pools, for example. But it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. An extended remote work model has potential risks if not executed and managed intentionally. It can lead to overwork, social isolation, and equity challenges within the organization. Maintaining a remote workforce, and doing it well, requires additional investments in people-focused areas like employee wellness, DEI programs, and manager training.

As companies begin to evaluate when and how to consider bringing employees back to the office, whether remote-first, onsite for everyone, or somewhere in-between, leaders need to stay focused on employee experience—with an eye toward ensuring equity and strengthening organizational culture.

1. Make intentional moves to build employee trust  

Remote work can be risky for new employees, people early in their career or new to the industry, as well as employees from underrepresented groups. Remote arrangements may make it more difficult for these employees to build relationships, get feedback from peers and managers, and identify the opportunities they need to grow their careers and reputations within the company. Additionally, there is a risk of diminished workplace trust, not just between the employee and employer, but between work teams and employees themselves. When everyone is working and engaging in different ways, it introduces risk for miscommunication and missed expectations, which can erode trust over time.

Related: Trust Is The New Competitive Advantage

Organizations can mitigate these risks by taking a very intentional, but nimble people-centered approach that includes:

1. A Well-Defined Vision: Agree on and articulate your company’s vision for returning to the office. Employees need to understand leaderships’ point of view on where and how employees will work, why that is important for the business, and how it connects to the organization's longer-term strategy and core values. All leaders should clearly and consistently articulate this vision.

2. A Well-Designed plan: Design a plan that aligns with your vision and centers on the experience of the people who work in and with your organization. This includes your employees, but also your customers, partners, vendors, and any other group that supports or interacts with your work and workplace. Avoid treating these groups as a monolith. Instead, work to account for the different and often intersecting personas and perspectives within each. 

For example, the return-to-office journey of an employee trying to balance work and homeschooling remote learning children—is likely very different from the journey of an employee who is single or caring for an aging relative. You can achieve this by involving a diverse group of stakeholders in developing and refining your plan. Don’t do this in a vacuum.

Related content: Return to Work Webinar Series, Aligning your teams to meet changing business priorities

2. Create meaningful remote employee experiences

Remote working isn’t going away anytime soon. Even as the risk of COVID-19 eventually recedes, many large enterprise organizations, especially in the tech space, have announced that employees will continue to have the choice for remote or hybrid work. Remote work may continue to appeal to employees, and it can help you attract good talent. In order to maintain a successful remote or hybrid model, leaders should not stop at just communicating the vision and plan, but also look inward to better define cross-organization work processes and resources. For example:

1. Engage intentionally: Engagement touchpoints with employees have been reduced and digitized. How do we make the most of the time we do have together and turn those into meaningful and memorable moments? An audit of the key touchpoints among each group within the organization, and an understanding of what teams want to get out of that interaction—gathering both from the leadership and individual employee’s perspective—will provide insights and map both necessary (and not needed) points of engagements. 

At Propeller, we’ve transformed our once in-person onboarding process into a virtual environment: interactive Trello boards have replaced physical checklists, training includes a mix of asynchronous and synchronous content, and meetings also focus on relationship building and intentional touchpoints that help immerse new employees in our firm’s values and ways of working.

Related Content: The Future of the Employee ExperienceIncreasing Virtual Team Engagement with Play

2. Support your managers: This new normal way of working demands a lot from people managers: they must demonstrate emotional intelligence, authenticity, and vulnerability in order to motivate, support, and coach their teams, while also taking care of themselves and their families. Given the continued transformation of the workplace as we come out of COVID, the need for these skills is going to only grow and managers will need support from their leadership and organizations to become even more effective leaders. 

This not only includes training and coaching for managers but also making sure they are equipped with a flexible toolkit of policies and practices to craft appropriate supports for their teams and individual employees. Avoid overly prescriptive policies and instead, opt for establishing guardrails in which a manager can collaborate with their employee on solutions that work best for them and their unique situation. This approach helps push decision-making processes to where the work is happening while building employee trust and engagement.

Related Content: Change Activation Toolkit

3. Measure, learn, and iterate: This is still a big experiment. It's important to have ways to gauge quickly what's working and what's not, so adjustments can be made as needed. Align your measures not just to key business outcomes but also to your employee experience, including diversity, inclusion, and equity to ensure your new ways of working are actually working for your employees. Encourage managers to approach this as a learning opportunity and engage employees in that spirit. This type of openness and vulnerability can also help build trust and a sense of community with employees (we're all in this together!). The key is to make sure to follow up with accountability on those learnings and be clear about what actions you're taking (or not taking) as a result and why.

Related content: Nimble Planning in the Next Normal

Summary

At the end of the day, those of us charged with helping shape new workforce and workplace standards want to feel confident we are moving our employees and our organizations forward. Encourage leaders to approach this next phase with a growth mindset, for themselves and their teams. Not everything will go according to plan and you very likely will make mistakes, but what matters is what you do after. Maintaining openness to feedback (even if it makes you uncomfortable or you don't agree with it), being clear about your values and priorities, and being sure to engage team members and stakeholders with different perspectives from your own will make your organization stronger and more resilient in the long run. 

What we're doing is hard. And while there is no single right answer, jumping in and making people-centered changes moves all of us in a better direction.

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Jess has spearheaded Propeller’s remote work plan and was recently interviewed by the Portland Business Journal to share best practices for managing a post-COVID workplace.

Looking for more strategic guidance to solidify your return to office plans? Be sure to check out our 3-part in-depth series "Moving Forward: Leading People & Organizations to the Next Normal" for tactical toolkits, recordings, plans, and strategies to get back to the office, whatever that means for your organization.