Last year’s speedy and expedient transition to remote work was impressive. This year, post-Labor Day return-to-normal plans were quickly scuttled by the Covid-19 delta variant as it roared across unvaccinated areas of the U.S.

Now companies are struggling with not just when it will be safe to return to the office but with how to create long-term workforce and workplace plans, says Madhu Chamarty, chief executive officer and co-founder of BeyondHQ.

“Five, 10 years down the road, it is quite likely that the triggers for hybrid work will remain in play,” said Chamarty, whose San Francisco Bay-area company offers a cloud-based workforce and workplace planning platform for distributed teams.

“As a [chief human resource officer] or head of real estate or even the CEO, you have to fundamentally embrace the fact that work is being redefined,” he said. “The organizations that recognize that and put it in a longer-term planning mindset will win out versus folks that say, we just have to figure out how to bring people back to the office [safely] and then everything can go back to normal.”

Chamarty says companies should accept hybrid work — which allows employees to work both at the office and from a remote location — as the new normal, notably because it will help companies retain top performers, expand the available talent pool and afford more flexible real-estate options.

Here Chamarty offers tips on how to move forward in uncertain times. The conversation  has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Remote Report: How have company leaders adapted to the challenges of the pandemic?

Madhu Chamarty: HR and real estate tend to be the organizational shepherds for the footprint, culture and productivity conversations. They went from that role pre-pandemic to essentially being first responders for the organization because it was almost literally life and death on some of the choices that they made in the last 18 months.

They’re not just managers of cost anymore. They are drivers of productivity, business values [and] top-line growth, depending on what hybrid plan you decide to go with.

RR: How can companies make long-term plans for their workforce and workplace strategies?

MC: List the questions you have to answer across all operational aspects of a company and discuss what the answer to each of those questions is. You need to understand all of the possible implications of having people in multiple parts of the country [when], historically, you just had them in one office. I think lots of HR leaders haven’t had to deal with such a broader optimization problem. [You’ll] need multiple vendors to help with all of the questions, corporate buy-in, and [for the] CEO to recognize that it’s not just about making sure that productivity is high [but also] to ensure that DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] goals are met as a result of this, etc., etc.

RR: What does long-term strategic planning look like for talent management when you can hire people who can work from anywhere?

MC: There is this feeling … that we’ve opened up the talent pool across the country and the world. [Companies may think], “We will be able to hire faster, grow faster … and therefore location is irrelevant.” But, on the flip side, [a recruiter will] tell you it’s harder for them. If you give them the guidance that [workers can be located] anywhere, they are basically stuck with needing to put equal amount of effort in all directions, versus saying to them, these are the markets that have the fastest time to fill or these are the markets where you don’t have to compete with the large tech giants, or these are the markets where you have really good entry-level talent.

Work from anywhere [also] has implications on company expenses. Are you going to allow people to expense their travel from HQ to the location no matter where they are? And what if they keep moving around? What does it mean for time zone and productivity, company culture, etc.?

RR: What are the different distributed-workforce models and their implications?

MC: Imagine a city like San Francisco. [Instead of] people all working out of a single office, hub and spoke [a central headquarters with satellite locations] would mean that you can now expand your hiring beyond the traditional parts of the Bay Area. I’ll have people in Sacramento, which is about a hundred miles from San Francisco. I’ll have people in [other] parts of California. Then they will come and meet once or twice a week in a location. That allows me to expand my potential labor pool. It also reduces the real-estate footprint that I need because now we’re going to only meet once or twice for collaboration purposes versus everybody needing a desk all the time.

[In the cluster model], Columbus, Ohio, is roughly equidistant from Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. That cluster of four cities represents a larger talent pool than [for example] Austin [Texas] alone and the average salary for a software engineer in any one of those four cities is less than the average software engineer in Austin.

The cluster of Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is a more attractive option than just going to Austin, and there are those [types of] clusters all around the country.

The third model is an extension of the current one. A lot of employers [have] very strong preferences for bringing people back [because] office culture is key for their operations or their culture philosophy. There’s talk of a larger real-estate footprint. You expand the space and have people sitting distanced and so on.

Flex spaces and the next incarnation of co-worker spaces are gaining [in popularity]. Up until the pandemic, the economics of a co-working space [for the developer was] that you cram in as many people as you can. There’s a whole lot of innovation underway to make flex spaces where your hub-and-spoke model actually lives. So you have a flex space in Columbus, and all of your employees work in all these other cities and they come into that flex space once in a while.

RR: What implications do hybrid and remote work have on company culture and productivity?

MC: Given the events that have transpired in the last year in terms of racial tensions, HR leaders are looking to use this moment as a trigger for enhancing the company’s DEI. You can have team members anywhere and your recruiting has expanded in scope. How can we ensure that we embrace a higher percentage of diverse folks in our team? How can we use the more distributed model as a way to go to markets where there are more diverse engineers or just a diverse population more generally?

The second component of culture that we hear a lot is employee health and well-being, where historically you could argue that focus on getting work done is probably the number one [for] most organizations. I think that even the most even the most pessimistic exec teams are pursuing [a focus on] employee health and well-being  because it’s a question of retention. You used to have the office as a source of perks and culture, and that’s arguably no longer holding the same place in people’s minds.

The third category of culture is just kind of bonding and communication. How do you feel together when you’re not physically together? Events have become a really big focus. Let’s not just meet in San Francisco. Let’s meet for a couple of days or let’s just go to Disneyland [or wine country]. Those kinds of ideas are gaining steam, especially if you have a global workforce.

RR: What strategic-planning advice would you give to companies moving forward during these uncertain times?

MC: Step back from whatever it is that you think is the silver bullet. Truly think about all aspects of your organization and how can you build flexible practices across payroll, across hiring, across culture, across workforce planning, across cost management. That hybrid work plan and ways to address different aspects of your company will be your savior [that] you can always look back to. Regardless of what the society and the environment looks like, these are the values of our company, and these are the areas we want to make sure are addressed.

That’s what is going to get you to be fully strategic.

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