The notion of the hybrid workplace seems to be one that many companies are embracing as we move deeper into the reopening phase of the economy but one question remains unanswered: How do we engage the workforce?

While various surveys show that productivity appears to be on the rise with remote workers, engagement may have suffered a hit because “most managers didn’t grow up managing hybrid workers. It was borne out of necessity and nobody really has skills and experience as well,” says Mike Salveta, president of HR Solutions in Mississauga Ont.

The old HR methods simply are not “optimized for hybrid work when employees and our customers are feeling disconnected.”

“We actually saw a fair amount of turnover from hybrid and work-at-home people mostly because the engagement factor was dropping; people were working harder and longer. They felt communication was disconnected from their coworkers and managers and peers. HR tools just weren’t in place to make that a real positive experience,” says Salveta.

Employee communications

One of the newest methods to emerge in the burgeoning hybrid workplace is asking workers for advice on decisions around the workplace, says Shelley Brown, practice leader at Bromelin HR Consulting in Montreal.

“Our lease was coming due at the office, and I had to make a decision: do we renew the lease with no anticipated date of actually going back? Or do we continue to work from home?”

When results were tabulated, staff “overwhelmingly,” said they were happy continuing to work from home, so the lease was not renewed and the company decided it would hold any future meetings at its sister company’s large boardroom, she says.

“In any kind of decision like this, employees have to be involved and they want to have a voice just like they want to have a voice in so many other things in the business. That’s how we get true engagement: people feel that they’re listened to and that their opinion is not only sought after but actioned upon.”

But a decision must be done before a schedule is finalized, says Salveta.

“I would not just ask employees for their preference, I would say, ‘Here’s what we believe will make work more effective.’ The point of coming into the office is because there needs to be some sort of interaction with some sort of organization, between coworkers, peers, and departments. It has to satisfy that natural work alignment.”

Scheduling considerations

Giving employees the opportunity to complete their work on their own schedules — as long as deliverables are maintained — is another way to effectively manage the hybrid reality, says Brown, though there has been some pushback in certain quarters.

“Many of our clients were very resistant to flextime, to remote working policies. There’s still a bit of an old-school way of thinking with some people that ‘If I can’t see you, you must not be working.’”

But many organizations are slowly adapting, she says.

“If you want to work early in the morning and then get the kids off to school between 8:30 and 9:30, as long as you’re available at 10, that’s fine. Or if you want to finish at three for whatever reason — picking up kids at school, traffic, whatever — and you want to finish up your day between seven and 8:30, that’s fine too and a lot of employers are moving towards that.”

When employees are beginning to trickle back into the office, some forethought must be completed so the employee’s day-to-day workflow is properly and efficiently modified, says Salveta.

“Start from a strategic perspective and actually sit down and think it through on how to optimize the work experience. Because it’ll be equally frustrating for me to drive in because I want to work some Thursdays in the office… and I get there and nobody I need to see is in; nobody that can help me do my job or do my report is in.”

Shared workspaces

In addition to work flexibility, many employees will have to become adaptable in terms of where they sit in the hybrid workplace, says Salveta, and it might be easier for certain types of workers to manage than others.

“That’s going to be a real challenge for a lot of people. It’s natural for salespeople, they’ve done it for years, hotelling stations. People are going to have to get incredibly efficient at what I call working out of their car.”

Others are going to become experts “at working out of your briefcase and being organized and bringing the files in that you need to use because you’re not going to be able to store all your stuff at the office like you used to,” he says. 

“Smart organizations are going to be the ones that are going to train people on how to work more effectively and remotely in a hybrid world, with shared and hotelling desktops; there’s lots of training out there and I think companies that really want to do this well into correct are going to train people on these techniques.”

One major tobacco employer has given workers the ability to work 50 per cent of the time at home and up to 10 days per year in another country, while a large insurer has come up with a 100 per cent flexible way of working.