Q&A: How Companies Can Create Best Practices for a Blended Remote/Onsite Workforce

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect U.S. households and businesses alike, one thing is for certain: Blending home and work spaces will have a long-term impact on individuals as well as companies looking to be productive during a challenging time.

Ann Arbor-based Sigred Solutions, a retained management recruiting and leadership advisory firm, recently completed a survey that highlights best practices for leading a blended remote/onsite workforce. Empathy, communication and trust are key to maintaining engagement while returning to the office.

At the same time, the survey addresses the following: hiring during COVID-19, maintaining company culture and engagement, employee motivators, mutual trust, communication, perceived fairness and safety, Social Justice and COVID-19 and returning to the office.

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To help decifer the survey, Corp! Magazine talked to Kristi Stepp, a partner at Sigred Solutions, a management recruiting and leadership advisory firm. She has more than 25 years of experience in human resources across the automotive, healthcare and workforce solutions sectors and has broad international and multicultural experience. Her experience includes strategic planning, change management, operational excellence and team collaboration.

Corp!: What are your key takeaways from your research regarding workplaces going forward in 2021 and beyond?

Stepp: We learned quite a bit from our survey and subsequent interviews with business leaders. When shelter-at-home orders were implemented across the United States in March, many expected them to be temporary. We had conversations with leaders about their “Return to Office” plans and watched dates be repeatedly extended from summer to fall. Some companies have extended dates into mid-2021. Other companies have invited employees to return, but with staggered work days to provide for social distancing and the ability to sanitize their premises.

Work from home and flexible work schedules may need to become permanent in some organizations to attract and retain great employees going forward. Eight months into the pandemic, we are recognizing that many practices intended to be temporary will become our “new normal.”

With regards to recruiting, we have seen a shift in candidate motivation. Some candidates have expressed concern about changing companies during the pandemic, even if they are not happy with their current employer. Other candidates are looking because they recognize signs that their employer may need to realign and their jobs may be at risk. The biggest change we have seen is that employees are less willing to consider longer commutes and expect more flexibility to work from home, even in jobs that traditionally have been office-based.

While some employers have found the need to let employees go, other employers have leveraged this downturn to upskill their talent. At Sigred Solutions, we saw a shift from the hiring of top-line positions, like sales, to bottom-line positions that focused on the improvement of operations.

Corp!: What should employers be doing now to get ready?

Stepp: Every company should start with an employee survey to understand what their employees value and what drives their engagement. Even if a company conducted a survey a year ago, much has changed that may have an impact on employees’ priorities. In addition, there may be differences between employees that have returned to the office and those continuing to work from home. Action plans should be developed, both at the executive level and together with employees in their areas of influence. The initial survey can be followed up with smaller “pulse” surveys that focus on the areas of greatest concern to track forward movement.

I also recommend companies complete SWOT assessments. Market shifts and employer responses to the pandemic have highlighted company strengths and weaknesses. Some companies have embraced opportunities to pivot into neighboring or new lines of business, creating threats to established market players. Business expenses that once seemed critical can now be shed and the funds may be re-invested to support strategies in other areas.

For companies that have built success on structure and consistency, they must bow embrace flexibility, operating in the gray and re-writing their playbook as we move forward.

Again, communication is critical to maintaining engagement and retaining employees. Let employees know the results of the surveys and SWOT analysis, and what you will do to address any major issues that were identified. Have the same messages come from different sources. Some employees may be retained or more strongly engaged because of the transparency of this information from leadership.

Other opportunities include:
• Focusing on how your managers are leading. Even some of the best “in-person” leaders are losing employees because of their work-from-home leadership style;
• Looking for opportunities to upskill talent through training or hiring;
• Rethinking on-boarding and to be sure newly hired employees feel supported. A huge miss has been employees who have been promoted or received expanded work responsibilities, but have not received the support to help them be successful in their new roles.
• “Re-boarding” – There is a great opportunity to take all internal employees who are returning to the office after months of working from home and reintroduce them to the company and the culture.

Corp!: How do you keep employees engaged if everyone is separated by location or remote work?

Stepp: It is important to understand what drives employee engagement. From our survey, two of the top motivators for employees across all demographics were “Feeling Valued” by the organization and “Having an Impact.” With a blended WFH/RTO workforce, communication and building trust are crucial to maintaining engagement.

Communication was one of the top themes from our survey. Employees and managers miss the ability to just “walk by” and talk to their co-workers. Lack of communication can have a negative impact on employees feeling valued or feeling that they are having an impact. Best practice companies focused on “over” communicating – regularly checking in with all employees to provide updates and feedback on the work they are doing. Another best practice was to hold all meetings virtually, regardless of whether some participants were on-site. This approach ensures that everyone has the same experience and no one feels left out of the process.

Mutual trust is another key to maintaining employee engagement in a blended WFH/RTO environment. Some employers were a little heavy handed in monitoring when employees were on-line, which had a negative impact on engagement as employees felt they were not trusted. In addition, many managers have historically judged performance by “employees in seats.” With Work from Home, that was no longer possible and both managers and employees felt a little adrift. Best practice companies provided training to their managers to help them redefine productivity – looking at tasks accomplished instead of time spent.

Corp!: What else do you want people to know?

Stepp: As we interviewed leaders, many spoke about the current focus on social justice. The death of George Floyd prompted one of the largest protest movements in recent history. From small non-profits to large multi-nationals, leaders shared that their responses to the pandemic have been intertwined with social justice. Internal efforts for social justice largely mirrored organizations’ pandemic responses and ranged from large employee town halls led by executive leaders to managers “checking-in” with their direct reports to remind them of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other support services.