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Optimizing a Hybrid Work Environment for a Positive Employee Experience

Sia Partners shares 5 golden rules to maximize the employee experience and foster retention in a hybrid work environment.

As employees, we all have expectations regarding our company, management, HR, colleagues, and work. The pandemic has shown no mercy, we are all feeling the impact on our health, both psychological and physical. As the line between work and personal life blurs, employees are beginning to reflect on the following question: why should I stay?

As many employees are being courted by other organizations, it is becoming more and more difficult to resist the temptation to jump ship in search of a better work-life balance.

In this context, where attracting and retaining talents are part of our daily challenges, we must ensure that we take concrete actions to foster a positive experience for employees. This challenge magnifies the difficult constraints highlighted by the global pandemic, the return to the office, and the hybrid work environment.

In order to stay relevant in this ever-evolving labour market, Sia Partners offers five golden rules to follow for a successful transition.

Presentation of the 5 golden rules: Clear positioning | Reinforce | Be ready to adapt | Update your practices to optimize QWL | Integrate Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Practices

1. Have a clear positioning

Uncertainty often contributes to a feeling of discomfort, Maslow highlighted the fundamental need for security in his Pyramid. It can therefore be destabilizing to consider returning to the office in person, especially if an organization is slow to take a position on return-to-work terms and conditions

Over the past several months, our living and working habits have changed significantly. From the perspective of sound management around this transformation, a clear positioning will reassure employees and allow everyone to prepare for this new reality.

Here are a few practices you can put in place to ensure a clear positioning:

  • Communicate with employees about your expectations related to their office attendance. Remember: one approach may not work for everyone, be flexible by offering multiple options.
  • Provide a reasonable amount of time for employees before implementing a return-to-work or hybrid work policy. Give them time to adjust their habits and routines and clearly communicate the “why” behind it.
  • Don't let the rumors get out! Be sure to address the positioning quickly, to avoid any ambiguity or uncertainty. Encourage your managers to take the pulse of their teams, or have an online platform for confidential feedback and questions.
  • Keep it as simple as possible. Our experiences with clients have shown that the simplest models are the most successful.

2. Reinforce, Don't Force

No one likes to be forced or have a decision imposed on them. Employees prefer to be involved and considered in the choices. That said, an interesting approach to ensure a smooth return to the office is to rely on positive reinforcement, to avoid forcing employees to come back to the office, but rather offer them incentives to do so. To identify the appropriate incentives, using Design Thinking could be a great opportunity, especially since this is a perfect time to be imaginative and innovative!

Here are a few practices you can implement to encourage office attendance: 

  • Set up incentives to create excitement around coming back to work at the office. Have offices been vacant for several months? Take time to clean up the place and to provide employees with a pleasant environment. Offer treats (sweets, coffee, boxed lunches, etc.). Organize fun, team-building activities to remind people of the benefits of being persent (while adhering to health measures, of course).
  • Encourage value-added office attendance. Having to travel to the office only to end up doing virtual meetings is likely to turn people off. Instead, encourage your employees to come back to the office for collaborative activities, or when the rest of their team is present as well. We have seen many organizations targeting specific days of the week where members of a given team were encouraged to come to the office. 
  • Be empathetic. Reassure your employees by showing understanding about the disorienting nature of returning to the office and accepting that the first few days in the workplace may be less productive.
  • Be open to employee needs. Train your managers to accommodate requests and the appropriate approaches to take. Plan for different scenarios and the related actions to take. Managers need support and clarity too!

3. Be Ready to Adapt

Time will not necessarily make things better! Since the return to the office is a major change, a good practice is to equip and support the members of the organization to make this transition more fluid and pleasant.

Here are some ideas for developing your support initiatives:

  • Coach managers on how their role should change in a hybrid management environment. Performance appraisals, employee onboarding, recognition, professional development and many other aspects of their management responsibilities are likely to take on a completely different form;
  • Utilize technology to support hybrid meetings and provide the necessary training. As an example, consider reviewing your video conferencing systems and tools in the workspaces, so that those who connect remotely are not left behind;
  • Share best practices and make training available on the topic. Consider training or micro-learning on remote team management, time management, psychological health first aid at work, managing difficult conversations virtually, how to create an engaging employee or candidate experience in hybrid mode, etc.
  • Update and promote your HR service offering. The pandemic has brought about changes to work and personal life. In this context, it is important to remind your employees of the resources available to them (e.g. benefits, their HR partner, etc.) and to update your HR service offering to reflect this new reality.

4. Update your Practices to Optimize Quality of Work Life (QoWL)

Quality of work-life (QoWL) is a factor that has a significant influence on the attraction, retention, engagement and performance of employees. More awareness on the subject has been precipitated by the pandemic, which has highlighted the need for QoWL, as proven by the Ontario government's recent law on the right to disconnect and Portugal's recent law banning managers from contacting employees out of work hours.

Here are some examples of actions you can take to update your QoWL practices:

  • Set up a quality of work life committee, to identify opportunities and implement them with minimal governance. This committee is different from your workplace health and safety committee, though complementary. Make sure you have a diverse membership and equip your members to act as ambassadors and your executives, as champions.
  • Survey your employees. How do they define QoWL? What actions would provide quick wins and solutions in their opinion? What possible initiatives around their QoWL would have the most influence on their wellbeing? Some organizations are now opting for ongoing, dynamic consultation to achieve this.
  • Benchmark best practices in the marketplace. Reach out to organizations in your industry to discuss with them the practices they have in place to foster QoWL. This can serve as inspiration when you begin to define your action plan. However, make sure that the policies and practices you put in place are consistent with employee expectations, and with the particularities and constraints of your organization (industry, schedules, nature of work, etc.).

Finally, why not create an exchange network between professionals? After all, we all face similar issues. In fact, feel free to join our bimonthly discussion groups!

5. Integrate Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Practices into your Work Policies

Numerous studies from the Harvard Business Review show that flexible work can have the effect of disrupting work-family harmony. Indeed, working from home can sometimes make it difficult to set boundaries. Another finding is that women take on more domestic responsibilities when working from home, while men tend to prioritize their work activities (Ibarra, Gillard, Chamorro-Premuzic, 2020).

On the other hand, employees with a more sustained office presence are likely to be privy to informal information and conversations. This reality may disadvantage those working remotely and thus, cause issues around equity and inclusion.

Here are some practices to promote equity and inclusion in this context:

  • Be vigilant and assess how this new reality may impact the various demographics of your workforce. A short pulse survey can give you a sense of the perceived experience on a regular basis. Keep this survey as brief and accessible as possible.
  • The choice to be in the office more frequently should not influence the perception of an employee's performance, involvement, or mechanisms for recognition, appreciation, reward, and promotion. Given that this is part of our unconscious bias, raise awareness and remind managers and senior leaders of this risk.
  • Haven't reviewed your performance management system in a while? Be sure to update it and remove criteria that may no longer be relevant, such as punctuality or frequency of attendance at work. Encourage a contribution and outcome-based approach to performance appraisals.
  • Ensure that office attendance expectations are clear, unambiguous and fair, to represent all members of your organization.
  • When hosting team events, be sure to allow for virtual participation to include those who are working from home, or offer alternatives.

It is utopian to think that the return to work can be done in the same conditions as pre-pandemic. Many changes have taken place since then, and organizations must adapt and evolve to remain competitive.

With the number of departures increasing, why wait to revisit your internal practices? Don't underestimate the power of clear, well-publicized communication based on listening to your people.