Back to the Office: Exploring the Future of Hybrid Work

Devin Foster

This recap of the May 6 episode of Talent Experience Live is all about preparing to welcome employees back to the office and exploring the future of hybrid work, featuring Phenom's senior director of talent acquisition, Keca Ward. 


There was never a playbook for the circumstances of Covid-19 in 2020, and employers had no guide for navigating the pandemic. Now, HR and talent acquisition departments are especially challenged with the responsibility of providing guidance for employees as they prepare to return to in-person work. 
 

Strong but flexible policies, commitment to employee safety, and accommodating near-constant change are among the basics of reopening office doors. Watch the full episode of Talent Experience Live below, and read on for an in-depth look at best practices for the coming months!
 


Hybrid work: Is there a secret sauce?


The short answer: Not really. 


From what Ward has seen, hybrid work models vary from company to company, and everybody’s taking a trial-and-error approach. Some employers are planning to have employees split their time in the office on a few-days-in, few-days-out basis, while others are considering a one-week-in, one-week-home plan. 


“You have to live it to know what works,” Ward said. "When you talk about mask-mandating and social distancing, those specific aspects of returning to work have not faltered." 


"We are still in a pandemic. We still have maximum occupancy guidelines to follow, so we can't even bring in 100 percent of the workforce, at least in Pennsylvania."


The CDC in May 2021 continued its support for working from home, with the help of the internet and phone when possible. Ward said according to the CDC's recommendations, Phenom would keep up its work-from-home policies. 


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"When we return to work in the near future, we're going to have to social distance, we're going to have the masks on."

 

Make hybrid work policies strong, flexible, and focused on safety
 


The path to a successful return to the office won't become clear until the majority of employees are actually back. 


With circumstances in constant flux, the return-to-office policy should be a live document, where changes can be made with very little to no warning. 


"The thing that we're doing is just keeping up to date with everything that's going on all the time," Ward said. "We're talking to certain companies in the area to keep that live document agile and flexible, and be able to change it at a moment's notice."


Ward bookmarks Covid-19 guidance sites for employers, like the CDC's Information for Office Buildings, and checks for new information every day. She also follows state government updates live on Facebook. 


Close contact with other local HR leaders has been critical to knowledge building and ensuring Phenom’s policies are in line with local regional requirements as well, she noted.


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Supporting global employees

For international companies, it’s critical to share policy and procedure information among global offices. Ward maintains constant communication with Phenom's offices through email and Slack to share information on employee safety and policy updates, and encourages each office to reach out to local businesses for regional policy guidance.
 

Prioritizing employees' safety

Even though there’s no clear roadmap, keeping employee health and well-being at the center of return-to-work policies can serve as a true north, helping organizations be confident they’re on the right path.
 

“Safety is at the forefront of all policies we write," Ward said. "We’ve communicated that from the start – that when we bring you back, your safety will be our top priority.” 
 

Phenom will follow all CDC guidelines regardless of vaccination among employees, for now. “As we get more and more vaccinations, we’ll probably see certain things eliminated from policies," Ward said. "We’re staying up to date with state DOH guidelines as well.”
 

Revisiting the 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. workday

Remote work taught us that people are capable of doing their jobs outside of the usual 9-5, Monday through Friday. 
 

“We’ll see people more open to work being done in a different way, even if it’s not the traditional weekdays or hours,” Ward said.
 


Communicating policies to candidates

Phenom is giving new hires the option of onboarding 100% virtually if they choose. “Candidates are certainly asking what the future looks like from an organizational standpoint,” Ward said. 


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Phenom’s goal is full transparency regarding what work will look like in the coming months, while things are still uncertain. 
 

"If we go to hybrid for six months, understand that maybe we're 100 percent in the office or maybe at that time, at the end of that six months, we're 100 percent remote again," Ward said. "We just don't know, so we're taking it chunk-by-chunk, quarter-by-quarter, or half year-by-half year." 
 

She said when speaking with candidates, Phenom's TA team is transparent about the uncertainty of returning to the office versus working from home, and that no matter how solid the plan might be, it could change on the fly. Onboarding new hires works the same way: if it can be done efficiently, Phenom will make its onboarding remote, too.
 

"We're confident in onboarding them [new employees] virtually, bringing them into teams and their career here with Phenom, being able to stay here long-term, because we're very confident in our virtual remote work." 
 


Take it slow to avoid back-to-the-office jitters


Using a phased-in approach, bringing small groups of employees back to the office in increments, is an option for some organizations. Phenom plans to start by inviting managers back to the office first, making it an option rather than a mandate.
 

The phased-in approach lets employees "test the waters" slowly to gauge their comfort level of working in-office before plunging back in, according to Ward. It's ideal because some employees are more ready and prepared to return to the office than others. If employees aren't comfortable coming back, they won't be required to.  
 

"I can only speak to our approach and how we're going to eventually bring back employees, but we're going to starts with managers and we're going to let it be 100 percent up to them if they feel comfortable returning, and that's going to be our trial period," Ward said. "We really want to phase this in slowly; we don't want to rush back. If you don't feel comfortable at this point, wait until you're comfortable." 
 

Employee safety training 

Conducting employee safety training is a big part of allaying employees’ fears. “[Safety training] ensures the psychological and mental mindset to make sure that they are comfortable going back,” Ward said. 


Office layout considerations
 


The work environment will certainly have a different feel, from new signage to restrictions on common spaces to traffic flow, but the exact physical layout can't really be predicted ahead of time.
 

What happens when we need to have a private conversation?

Ward and her team have given a lot of thought to one-on-one and confidential conversations. The use of conference rooms at Phenom is limited, so what should be done for the personal conversations that HR and TA professionals have with candidates and employees? 
 

In the beginning, Phenom will take a team-by-team, day-by-day approach to private conversation arrangement, Ward said.
 

Flexibility – the name of the game! 

“It has to come down to what their day looks like and depending on workload, that can be challenging," Ward said. "Their whole day is usually spent talking to candidates.” 
 

For now, recruiters will most likely work from home as their days are filled with back-to-back calls with candidates.
 

Inside — and outside — your organization's four walls, there’s no single way to approach the upcoming return to in-office work, and certainly no exact recipe to follow. TA and HR professionals' best bet is to keep employees at the center of everything they do. Stay flexible. Stay up to date. And, finally, stay positive.
 


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