Companies worldwide are at a historic pivot point: creating an appealing hybrid-work policy so they can retain effective employees in a tight labor market while still meeting business imperatives.

“It’s a fluid topic right now,” said Casey Hauch, a Boston-based managing director for the talent line at the London consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. “Organizations were catapulted into flex work … because of Covid-19. So, whether they liked it or not, it has created temporary situations, not necessarily policies.”

Every organization is rethinking what they’d been doing for the last year and what the “next normal” looks like, she says. Most companies she’s seen are developing policies that will address remote work or hybrid work — a combination of remote and on-site work.

Hauch adds that organizations implementing company-wide policies should seek to remove the bias and inconsistency of who gets to do remote work, a decision that used to be left up to the manager’s discretion.

Steve Cadigan, founder of the consulting firm Cadigan Talent Ventures, based in Menlo Park, Calif., and author of “Workquake: Embracing the Aftershocks of Covid-19 to Create a Better Model of Working,” advises that companies shouldn’t assume they’ll get the policy right the first time.

“It needs to account for helping people learn how to build a rhythm” of working remotely and in person, said Cadigan, who was LinkedIn’s first chief human-resources officer.

‘Don’t create haves and have-nots’

Organizations should expect to create a policy that evolves with regular, smart updates that include input from employees as well as company leaders, Cadigan adds.

“This is not solely an HR issue,” said Hauch, who noted that developing a flex-work strategy is a business decision across the C-suite that will require “a massive change management effort.”

She adds that companies are taking lessons learned from the last year and are experimenting with flex-work policies that run the spectrum from full-time on-site to completely remote, while accommodating additional variations, such as four-day workweeks and job sharing.

“Creating a policy on flex work creates those rules of engagement,” she said. “It also helps to create objectivity and fairness [around] who it applies to, because one of the concerns that we’re seeing is that you don’t want this to create a haves and have-nots situation.”

Carolyn Goerner, clinical professor of management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, agrees.

“Employees are sensitive to perceived inequities and may perceive some employees as getting ‘special treatment’ unless they have an idea of the general situations in which someone gets one assignment or the other,” she said.

“It isn’t advisable to share individual-level decisions with employees,” Goerner added. “For example, don’t answer [the question], ‘Why is Jorge allowed to work from home when I’m not?’ But instead have clear guidelines for the kind of work and workers that are allowed hybrid schedules.”

Policy challenges

Pamela Wolf, a senior labor law analyst at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., a legal consulting operation based in New York, says employers should identify the functions/positions that must be performed on site, the number of employees performing those jobs/functions and whether all of them need to be working on site at the same time.

Employers also should apply their pandemic-era tech to other jobs in the organization to make them more remote friendly, she says.

In addition, businesses can consider whether to redistribute certain job functions to develop new job descriptions that “would support employee rotation for on-site and remote workdays and establish a benchmark for the number of employees required to work on site at any one time,” Wolf explained.

“This may mean that less office space is necessary and that it [can] be reconfigured to better accommodate the specific cross-section of functions that will now be performed on site,” she said, adding that creating additional meeting and socializing spaces will be “beneficial to both the business and the well-being of employees.”

Safety and legal compliance

Wolf says it’s also critical for companies to continue pandemic precautions such as health screening, social distancing, mask-wearing, hygiene protocols and barriers between workspaces. Whether to require proof of vaccination for returning employees will be another issue to wrestle with.

“Federal anti-discrimination laws do not prevent employers from requiring that all employees physically entering the workplace be vaccinated for Covid-19, as long as they comply with [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirements,” she said.

These requirements include providing “reasonable accommodations” for individuals with disabilities who may not be able to be vaccinated when it would not impose an undue hardship on the business to do so, Wolf added.

Similarly, employers must comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals who, because of sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, do not get vaccinated for Covid-19, unless providing an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business, she adds.

Legal requirements may vary by state

Employment and labor attorney Mark Kruthers of Fennemore, a Phoenix-based law firm, added that  “not only would an effective policy look different from employer to employer, but a policy tailored for operations in one state may not work for employees based in a different state.”

For example, California employers must comply with stringent state requirements that are applicable regardless of where the employee performs his or her work.

“Meal/rest break, overtime and ‘time worked’ recording obligations are difficult to satisfy when an employee is working away from the office,” Kruthers noted.

In most cases, the employer has to trust that the employee is following all of the organization’s policies and procedures.

“Unfortunately, in situations where the employer’s trust is misplaced, the financial damages associated with the resulting ‘wage and hour’ and penalty claims can be significant,” Kruthers warned.

To avoid such complications, he suggests that companies apply a remote-work policy only to exempt employees who do not qualify for overtime under the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act.

He also recommends that companies cover some remote-work expenses, such as furniture and internet service, encourage ergonomic work spaces to prevent injury and have employees ensure adequate protection for work-issued equipment, files and other items that could be stolen, lost or damaged.

Supporting career growth

Because widespread remote work presents new challenges in performance and career growth, Goerner of Indiana University recommends setting additional performance expectations for remote workers for regular communication and follow-through, availability, responsiveness and timeliness of work submissions.

“Be explicit about your expectations up front; don’t allow the policies to simply evolve over time,” she said.

Goerner also notes that it isn’t uncommon for people working remotely to be forgotten when it comes to new work assignments, promotions or pay raises.

“It’s important to keep their performance records up to date and ensure they have regular coaching and feedback conversations with managers,” she said.

Lessons learned

Hauch of Willis Towers Watson offers several key lessons learned from the last year of forced remote work:

  • Consider the employee point of view: To retain remote talent, companies should make sure career growth is not inhibited by the work-from-home status.
  • Listen: Get feedback about what worked and what didn’t from employees as well as from managers and leaders.
  • Connect: The policy should reflect how it will be good for business, such as fostering agility, improving competitive advantages and bolstering the employee experience.
  • Clarify expectations: Employers need to be clear that the policy will support company principles such as good customer service, employee wellness, leader and manager accessibility and a commitment to fostering diversity, equity and inclusion.

Cadigan, the author of “Workquake,” suggests a final point: Managers should do their best to develop an appropriate policy, but also cut themselves a little slack.

“No company or leader was built or trained to handle this new reality,” he noted. “Everyone deserves a little bit of grace to learn how to adjust. We are still in a period of radical experimentation right now.”

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