The 'nitty gritty' of hybrid policies: how can HR manage employee push-back?

'The owner of our company is insisting on full-time return to work - it's caused no end of issues'

The 'nitty gritty' of hybrid policies: how can HR manage employee push-back?

Hybrid work – what began as a dream has turned into a nightmare. While the pandemic made remote work necessary, it was never really meant to be a full-time option. However, employees have taken to remote work like ducks to water, feeling more productive and enjoying a better work-life balance. For HR leaders, this has presented a new challenge – how should they operate in this new working model? Can a culture survive on ‘ad hoc’ in-office days? Should they force employees to come into the workplace? Or close the office entirely if people opt not to?

When the C-suite and HR don’t agree on policy

It's a minefield right now – both culturally and legally – in deciding what options you have. And, more often than not, HR and the C-suite aren’t seeing eye to eye. One global HR director from a leading Canadian company revealed that they’re currently going head to head with their CEO over the organization’s hybrid policy.

“The owner of our company is insisting on full time return to work,” they told HRD, under the promise of anonymity. “As you can imagine, it’s caused no end of issues when employees now have choices about where and how to work. Hybrid is difficult for some roles and can create an us-vs-them situation if some people are able to work remotely while front line workers cannot. However, for those organizations which are mostly knowledge workers, requiring people to come to the office and not allowing them autonomy has been challenging.”

Instead of mandating a return to work policy for all, they suggest giving employees some control over when and how they work.

“The issue is this: the owner does not trust any of the employees and he believes they need to be in the office in order to be productive,” they added. “He is confusing face time with work output. What I would rather see happening is setting clear expectations around output, measuring people for the work they get done and not for how many hours they are in the office or online. Treat people like adults and give them the autonomy to choose where they work best. The rising cost of gas is adding pressure to people not wanting to come into the office and yet salaries are not increasing.

“If you don't trust the employees, you either need to find other employees (if they are not trustworthy) or you need to look at yourself in the mirror (if you yourself are untrustworthy).”

Can I insist that employees come into the office?

From a legal standpoint, employers have the final say on what their hybrid policies look like. If you want to dictate that all employees have certain days they have to come into the office, then you can.

Read more: Vaccine mandate no issue for us, says TFI International

“As we move towards the second anniversary of this pandemic, there’ll be a strong argument on the part of the employer, who implemented the work from home arrangements, that the employee knew that requirement arose in the context of a public health emergency,” Matthew L.O. Certosimo, partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, told HRD. “As such, employers will say that work from home was temporary, linked to the pandemic, not a permanent feature of the employment relationship. Essentially, at some point, employers may find themselves having tacitly agreed to an effective amendment. The key piece of advice for employers is to communicate the temporary nature of the work from home arrangement – explaining that it's necessary because of government and/or public health orders and health and safety practices – and to outline their return-to-work plan.”

A hybrid policy should be fair – not biased towards the C-suite

You can lay down when and how your people work – be it in the office or at home. The question is, in the Great Resignation, is that really the most sensible option? A recent report from Robert Half Canada found that 31% of employees are currently looking for a new role – almost all of which are citing ‘remote work’ as their driving factor. As such, if you are worried about high turnover and a lack of available candidates, it might be best to take a softer approach.

Instead of mandating that employees have to come in three days a week – say that they should come in no less than two, with that third being flexible. It’s also essential that you have a leadership presence in the office. All too often, employers make the mistake of recalling employees to the workplace but giving senior management the option to stay at home. All this does is create tension between employer and employee. If you have a hybrid policy, this policy is for everyone. You can’t very well be mad at workers who don’t want to come into the office when their CEO doesn’t want to either.

How can I lure people back to the office?

This is the biggie. So you’ve decided to recall employees, you have a hybrid schedule in place – but people still don’t seem happy. What should you do? This is the most common problem for employers. The simple answer is that you can’t expect everyone to be onboard with hybrid – some just want a fully remote model. If this is the case, and morale is taking a nose dive, you need to look at incentives. 

If you’re dead set on hybrid, but your people are reluctant, offer them additional leave if they commit to so many in-office days. For every four months they come in three days a week, give them an extra day in lieu. This is a great way of incentivising people and building on your culture at the same time.

Should I close the office if people refuse to come in?

An important note here is that as the HR leader you need to pick the days that employees are in – don’t let them decide themselves. That way you can have a handle on who’s in when – and organize fun, team building activities for team through the week. This also helps avoid days when one person will be in the office alone and helps build a more cohesive strategy. It also means that you have the option of closing up the office one or two days a week. Depending on your rental contract, this could cut costs and even give you the choice of letting it out – if you tenancy allows it.

Can company culture survive in remote work?

One of the biggest concerns for HR leaders is maintaining a vibrant company culture in remote and hybrid work. There’s this prevalent idea that culture becomes diluted in WFH models, with people missing out on face-to-face interaction and spur of the moment innovation. There’s no universal recipe for cultivating the best hybrid culture – it really is a case of trial and adaptation.

Take Airbnb for example. They’ve implemented a ‘work from anywhere’ policy for all staff. Airbnb co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Brian Chesky said this allows for employees to live where they want while “collaborating in a highly coordinated way and experiencing in-person connection.”

Read more: Do you have to pay for employee commutes?

In terms of maintaining culture, the CEO was keen to stress that employees will still meet up for meaningful in-person gatherings throughout the year, with more in-person gatherings scheduled starting next year for every quarter. As well as that, senior leaders will be expected to meet up more often. This approach seems to be working for the company – a remote model with clear expectations around regular gatherings to boost morale and creative thinking – and is a good option for employers that’re struggling with reluctant staff.

How are you managing hybrid policies and employee fall out? Tell us in the comments.

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