By: Michelle Leung
With vaccines rolling out and economies reopening, now is the time for businesses to reimagine the future of work. Choosing the right work arrangement can help businesses foster better team collaboration, preserve the workforce’s physical and mental well-being and save funds.
The pandemic has forced millions of businesses globally to shift their workforce to work from home (WFH) to safeguard and preserve their health and well-being. With the vaccine rollout gaining pace and economies reopening, businesses are now finding themselves in the novel position of re-evaluating their work arrangements. So how do we, as HR leaders, redesign our ways of working and the physical spaces we work in, to ensure the happiness and health of our employees?
Deciding on an arrangement that balances the needs of the business and employees’ preferred work environment has its challenges. For some companies, the nature of the work they do means that working from home just isn’t an option, others with a traditional mindset just prefer to have everyone back in the office. Interestingly, many employees actually want to head back to the office to some extent, despite the advantages that come with WFH.
According to Cigna’s COVID-19 Global Impact Study series, in mid-2020, at the end of the first wave of the pandemic in most markets, data from Asia, UAE, UK, and the US showed an overwhelming preference for remote working globally, as people enjoyed the flexibility and family time it offered.
By the end of 2020, this novelty began to wear off and many people began to crave a return to some form of normality, with 53 percent of people surveyed now wanting to work from the office at least 80 percent of the time. The key reasons stated for this were more effective communication, better team collaboration, and better productivity.
But what does this mean for employers and HR professionals, and how can we ensure we meet the needs of our employees in the post-pandemic era?
When deciding on a work arrangement, business and HR leaders have the responsibility to ensure that the workspace is a safe, positive, and conducive environment for employees. We can achieve this through:
Redefining the purpose of office workspaces: Businesses can take this unique transition time as an opportunity to redefine the use of the office space. Going to the office does not have to be a mundane daily practice that is just “part of the routine”. Instead, to make the time spent in this space focused and purpose-driven, companies can incorporate new design elements, such as removing cubicles and partitions to create more open communal areas and meeting rooms, to transform the office into spaces that will encourage collaboration, relationship building, and social interaction.
For companies that allow flexible work arrangements, the impact can be further augmented, as the different but complementary functions of the office and home working environment can be more distinctly reinforced. As we near the 18-month mark since COVID-19 swept the globe, most employees have set up a suitable “office” space at home, which would help facilitate a more permanent transition.
Rethinking your businesses’ real-estate strategy: Traditionally, companies compete fiercely for prime real-estate in city centers. However, the landscape today has changed dramatically with the potential for huge cost-saving.
Having been forced to work remotely during the pandemic, companies are realizing that employees can not only work outside of the office, but studies have actually reported an increase in productivity for remote workers. This has encouraged many businesses to adopt or at least consider adopting a hybrid working model, which means that there will be fewer people in the office on any given day. This allows companies to downsize their office space and save valuable funds.
In Asia and in Europe where A-grade office spaces are particularly expensive, businesses can take this opportunity to reconsider their real-estate strategy. The pandemic has accelerated predicted trends in the flexible workspace sector and has changed how office spaces are being utilized. By downsizing office space, funds can be freed up and redirected into other business areas such as enhancing IT support and infrastructure, thereby ensuring employees have the right tools to work from home.
Funds can also be used to create more leadership programs for talent development or to provide enhanced employee benefits packages. These changes can have a positive impact on attracting and retaining talent, whilst also giving employees the opportunity for the hybrid work experience that many desire.
At Cigna, we’re already making changes to our real-estate strategy by reducing our office space by 40 percent in Europe. In Asia, we have been focusing on redesigning our office spaces to promote innovation and drive collaboration among our teams. The associated cost-saving has allowed us to redirect funds to finance our employee benefits program, ultimately helping to promote overall better whole health in our workforce.
Reviewing and enhancing employees’ benefit programs, particularly critical areas such as mental and physical wellness that impact productivity: The sudden shift to WFH and the fact that countries have experienced several rounds of lockdowns due to the pandemic, have contributed to high-stress levels among employees.
We saw that overall global stress levels remain high with 83 percent of people saying they are stressed, and this has remained consistent throughout the pandemic, according to Cigna’s COVID-19 study. The “always-on” working rates have also remained high, with 79 percent of people reporting they are checking emails and being constantly available after office hours or over the weekends, up from 76 percent in Q1 & Q2 of 2020.
As such, businesses must review employee benefits to provide support where needed most, paying attention to mental and physical wellness. For example, businesses can consider rolling out mental well-being programs such as virtual coaching sessions to impart stress management skills, arranging weekly one-on-one conversations with colleagues to check in on them, or organizing fitness challenges that can be carried out at home.
At Cigna, we have offered our employees additional leave days related to COVID-19, to allow them to take care of themselves or their loved ones should they need to quarantine or go to the hospital, so that they can focus solely on recovery without worrying about work. We also encourage our employees to access our collection of on-demand virtual wellness programs to take a break so that they can feel rejuvenated and ready to work.
In addition to these “hardware” opportunities, companies can explore HR-related, “soft” skills-based aspects that must be addressed to optimize the impact of the company’s efforts and to create an effective workforce. For example:
Educating leaders to adopt new leadership styles: To establish a strong corporate culture and encourage employees to adopt any new policies or ways of working, it is important for management to lead by example. However, many senior leaders today are used to having daily face-to-face interactions and have found it difficult to adapt to new ways of working.
As a result, many leaders may not know how to connect with their team members who are based remotely, or worse unintentionally falling into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap. Such leaders will miss out on critical opportunities to connect and foster a rapport with their employees. To avoid this issue, HR can offer different skills-based training or tools that can help its leadership team close any gaps.
Talent onboarding and retention: Despite the pandemic, Cigna has remained committed to hiring the best new talent but we have had to adapt our hiring and onboarding processes in many markets where it has been impossible to meet face-to-face or come into the office. Companies must pay attention to new hires made during the pandemic and ensure that they are nurturing them through these uncertain times.
Employers need to ensure a continued focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Remote working situations have only magnified the need for inclusive leaders to create and foster new environments where employees can be productive and connect with their colleagues in different ways.
HR teams should develop a standard protocol to ensure that all employees are properly integrated into the company so that they understand how to live the company’s values as well as to make them feel part of the business, which will ultimately improve talent retention.
Just as important is retaining existing talent. We are seeing that employees do not feel like they are being properly evaluated and rewarded while working remotely. To mitigate this risk, management – especially, direct line managers – should ensure that they schedule regular 1-on-1 check-ins with their team members.
To sum up, finding the right work arrangement for your workforce will have a huge impact on employees’ overall physical and mental well-being, which leads to better collaboration, innovation, and productivity. As the pandemic evolves, so will the needs of your employees so flexibility, regular check-ins, and active listening are essential to adapting work arrangements effectively, and your employees will be happier for it.
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