Balancing flexibility and inclusion: 5 ways to make WFH work better for everyone

Is working from home (WFH) a wonderful thing for workers and companies, or a necessary accommodation during the pandemic that needs to go away? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle as we better understand the limitations of working from home and its long-term impact on the workforce.

In our work with frontline leaders and staff, we’re seeing three major realities emerge:

Managers with remote employees have to work differently – and often harder – to keep them meaningfully connected to the company and their colleagues.

Organizations should be asking themselves whether they are giving these leaders the training, support, and resources (including time) that they need to retain staff and successfully meet operational, quality, and service goals.

Remote work is tougher for new employees.

New hires working from home have told us that they really don’t know their colleagues and don’t have the built-in support system that makes it easy to ask a question, clarify a concern, or just vent a little with work friends in the break room. Sure, they appreciate no commute and saving on gas, but do those advantages outweigh the downsides of isolation and lack of connection?

Not all individuals are cut out to be independent, remote workers.

Unless the work is structured and monitored like it is for call center staff, employees need to possess a high degree of self-motivation and discipline to make working alone successful. Interestingly, some of the anecdotal reports of productivity soaring when people work from home are beginning to fall apart. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report finds that remote workers, on average, work 3.5 fewer hours per week than their in-person counterparts.

Reid Health’s Remote Work Improvement Team: Kelli Goodwin, Julie Morrison, Tim Love, Amy Baldwin, Burl Stamp (Stamp & Chase), and Jenny Gualtieri.

In our work with Reid Health in Indiana, a group of directors with a significant number of employees working remotely came together to explore and suggest improvements. Here are their solid recommendations:

1. Communicate clear standards and expectations for remote employees.
  • Employees must be accessible during agreed upon work hours (online and/or by phone)
  • Cameras need to always be turned on during virtual calls and meetings
  • Employees should dress appropriately and professionally (at least above the waist and visible to the camera!)
2. Adapt team meetings to improve participation and inclusion.
3. Create purely social, informal opportunities that supplement formal team meetings.
  • Leaders should create virtual “coffee breaks” that help employees get to know each other.
    • Just 15 minutes long
    • Groups of 4-5 employees that rotate for each round of coffee breaks
    • Some structure to the conversation with fun, informal question, such as:
      • “Tell us about what you like to do on the weekend.”
      • “What’s your favorite TV show?”
      • “What’s your favorite thing about your best friend in the world?”
      • “Tell us something about yourself that might surprise others.”
      • “What are your ideas for a future virtual coffee break topic?”
    • Evolve the coffee break practice over time so that staff take more responsibility for scheduling and questions.
  • Leadership should solicit staff input for in-person social events, like:
    • Potluck lunch/dinners
    • Picnics
    • Be creative!
4. Clearly communicate how to reach out to leaders when needed.
  • Email is preferred for routine, non-urgent questions and information
  • Phone number(s) for calling or texting in case of unusual or more urgent issues
5. Give hybrid employees reasons to come to the office.
    • Schedule regular team meetings during day(s) when everyone is in the office.
    • Encourage in-person meetings across the team or with other departments for planning and brainstorming.
    • Provide flexible work space to accommodate sporadic in-person visits.

Clearly, there is no one single answer to remote vs. in-person work structure. Smart organizations recognize both the benefits and downsides to having team members geographically dispersed, then look for solutions to make WFH work better for everyone.  In addition to watching productivity statistics, forward-thinking companies also are watching the impact of remote/hybrid work on employee engagement/connection and on middle manager retention and satisfaction.