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3 Tips For Introducing A Flexible Work Environment In A Post-COVID Era

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Daniel Jacobs

After a year that forced most employees out of the office and into remote work, the COVID-19 vaccine is starting to circulate, and that means companies need to create a return-to-work strategy.

This isn’t as easy as a simple all-staff email with a return date. While employees might miss the camaraderie of their work colleagues, they’ve also gotten used to a morning commute that ends in their living room. They’ve also become accustomed to flexible schedules that let them manage pandemic-related changes in their personal life while still hitting their work deadlines.

But employees’ hesitations to return aren’t just about losing out on convenience; there is real fear behind it. A People Management report found that over half of workers were reluctant to return to the office because of fears they’d get the virus, and those that have returned to work weren’t confident in new safety measures.

Even with a vaccine, employees still have COVID-related responsibilities, and it’s not a given that everyone will get vaccinated. Your staff might feel that a full-time return to the office isn’t feasible.

For most, the best solution is to offer employees a hybrid work environment that mixes remote and on-site. This will help productivity remain high while still letting teammates handle personal business.

Check out these three tips below as you begin planning for a smooth transition into a flexible work environment in a post-COVID era.

1. Let employees choose what works best for them

While the office might be opening back up, your employees’ lives are still built around the effects and dangers of COVID. Asking them to return without factoring in their safety concerns, or pandemic-related personal and family commitments will only add stress to an already-tense situation.

The best way to support your employees is by letting them create their own hybrid schedules. They’re the only ones who know how many plates they have to juggle and when they have to be juggled. They’ll be most productive and engaged when they can figure out a plan that helps them cross everything off their personal and professional to-do lists.

PWC found that 55% of employees wish to be remote three or more days per week, while 68% of leaders felt they should be in the office that same amount of time. Stakeholders need to address that gap by listening to employees and instituting a return-to-work plan that inspires confidence. Communicate key dates, reintegration strategies, and what safety measures you’re implementing to calm their fears about being in an office. 

2. Help teams align their schedules to foster collaboration

An added benefit to offering hybrid schedules is that you’re giving teams the opportunity to align their schedules to maximize their office time together. We owe a tremendous debt to video calls, but over half of remote workers felt lonely during the day, and almost 65% missed the social aspect of the office. Also, you can reach a deeper level of collaboration on-site because employees can push and inspire each other in a way that isn’t always there on video. Further, team leaders can more effectively coordinate big meetings and special events when they know employees’ on-site schedules.

While complete alignment is the goal, some colleagues may still be remote, either occasionally or permanently. If anyone has to attend a meeting virtually, encourage them to keep their cameras on. This will create a more seamless work environment that makes them feel like part of the team, even if they’re not in the room.

Aligning schedules and taking steps to promote inclusion strengthens relationships and drives growth more than stakeholders asking workers to follow an arbitrary schedule that doesn’t reflect “the new normal.”

3. Prioritize company culture

While working from home has generally had a positive effect on productivity and engagement, company culture has taken a backseat in favor of organizational continuity. It’s been over a year since employees have enjoyed team coffee breaks, impromptu working lunches, or office happy hours.

Everyone should do their part to recreate this familial feeling, especially as many employees might still be remote or distributed. To rebuild your culture in a flexible work environment, you can start small by encouraging more non-business-related meetings during the workday, like a virtual game hour. Or you can get creative; anything that gets people talking and having fun together again is a great step.

You can also go deeper and ensure that any perks you offer to on-site workers are also extended to those at home to make them feel like part of the team. Whatever food-based events you have, for example, find a way to include out-of-office workers. Turn the meeting cameras on for a virtual lunch, and if you’re ordering food for the office, consider sending remote staff a gift card or stipend so they can do the same. 

Team-building activities are also great options to help staff break the ice (again!). Just make sure they’re video chat-friendly so everyone can be involved. Trivia contests really get people’s competitive juices flowing, while afternoon yoga helps people de-stress.

A flexible-work environment strategy is really an exercise in empowering your employees, given their well-founded fears and hesitations. Everything you do should be done with providing a COVID-safe working environment that makes them feel safe, engaged, and productive. 

Keep employees in the loop with your office’s plans, and continue providing information and resources after they’re back. Let on-site employees create their own hybrid schedules so they won’t stress about handling their personal life. Focus on office culture, and make sure that remote workers feel like they’re in the office. The growing pains might be tough, but they’re worth it. Your staff will feel appreciated, engaged, and most importantly, productive.

Daniel Jacobs is a senior copywriter and content strategist with extensive experience in tech and workforce solutions. His specialties include blogs, briefs, eBooks, case studies, emails, and social media copy. He currently lives in LA, where he wonders why he doesn’t have a dog yet.

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