How can you tend to your culture in a hybrid environment and rapidly changing workforce? And what can you do to safeguard your company from a potential flood of leave applications in a few months time?
But how will these play out in practice? HRM speaks with two HR practitioners about managing a changing workforce in 2022.
Redefining the workplace
As we head into year three of living through a pandemic, one of the first things to consider is what the ‘workplace’ actually is, says Joan Lurie, developmental psychologist and CEO of Orgonomix.
After two years of various COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, for those who can, working remotely has become normal. Home offices have been set up (remember the great desk shortage of 2020?), we’ve formed new habits and most of us are happily saying “you’re on mute” a lot less as we all finally figure out Zoom.
“We’re used to thinking about work as a place that we go to, but in fact the ‘workplace’ is no longer one integrated physical space – it’s a network,” says Lurie.
In the past, going to a single place to work helped as a cultural leveller, she says. But with the rise in remote work – which shows no signs of stopping even once the pandemic ends – HR practitioners have an increasingly complex, diverse and ever-changing workforce to manage.
“I think the big adaptive challenge for organisations and for HR is letting go of the idea of workplace uniformity and cultural fit,” says Lurie.
“Leaders and HR have to think about the multiplicity of ‘workplaces’ and ensuring all employees have a safe, conducive place to work from, which enables them to focus and do their best work. Personalisation is a big trend with customers – maybe so too with employees?”
Culture in a hybrid and changing workforce
With no uniform experience of the workplace, keeping a business’ culture alive can be challenging. But there’s a greater role for HR than hosting virtual events and ensuring managers have regular check-ins with employees.
“One of the most important tools for hybrid work is to help people develop their systemic intelligence,” says Lurie. “A principle of systems theory is that boundaries are held in our minds as much as in physical spaces.
“What holds us together in a systems lens is our role in relation to each other and our sense of interdependence. Each part sees how they sustain the whole, and the whole exists to sustain the part.”
In other words, ensuring employees know how they contribute to their team, and how their team contributes to the business as a whole, can foster a sense of connectedness.
“It’s great if you want to try and accommodate everyone, but you also need some business pragmatism and commercial reality.” – Susan Sadler CPHR, AHRI’s South Australian State President and CEO of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions.
“It can be liberating and deeply inclusive beyond physical limitations,” says Lurie. “Paradoxically, given we’re talking about remote work, thinking this way can enable a more integrated, interdependent and adaptive culture. This is the network culture we need to grow to thrive in the new landscape.”
Other ideas to foster a sense of shared culture could include creating a mentor program to help new employees feel connected to their colleagues, or implementing an annual business retreat where colleagues can get to know each other on a more personal level than often happens through a video call.
Ensuring you keep company traditions alive for remote workers – for example sending cupcakes to celebrate a birthday if you would usually organise a cake in the office – can also make employees feel like part of the team no matter where they are.
A focus on mental health at all levels
As a general rule, humans don’t fare well with uncertainty – and that’s exactly what we’ve been living with for the past two years. Most of us can no longer count on being able to make that dinner reservation with friends, head interstate for a weekend getaway or even get a doctor’s appointment.
Add to this the isolation that can come with working from home, and additional stressors such as homeschooling or dealing with ageing parents, and many Australians are feeling burnt out.
While HR practitioners work closely with leaders to help them support their workforce, it’s also vital to consider the mental health of leaders themselves, says Susan Sadler CPHR, AHRI’s South Australian State President and CEO of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions.
“As an employee, it’s easy to forget that your manager has their own stresses; you don’t know what they’re going through,” she says. “But HR practitioners are in a unique position where they are more likely to be trusted to support those people through that. That’s a really key role that almost only HR can play.”
It’s also important to look after your own mental health, and Sadler suggests approaching conversations with an ‘ask and give’ mentality.
“It’s about having a mindset of, ‘What can I give you, but what do I need as well?’,” she explains. “I do this in my own team meetings. We ask who has the capacity to give and you need to be brave enough to ask for help.
“We can’t do everything on our own. We are all tired, and we’re no use to anyone if we crumble. HR has a responsibility to look after each other, to ask for help and to support leaders with their mental health so they don’t get forgotten.”
Navigating a return to the office
As governments move away from lockdowns and work from home mandates, Sadler says employers will have a lot more discretion – and with that comes responsibility.
Some companies are opting for a ‘team A’ and ‘team B’ system (where the groups alternate days in the workplace) to ensure spaces aren’t too crowded, while others are using tools such as Slack to keep track of who will be in the office and when.
“Employers’ natural inclinations are often ‘I want you in the office’ but there are employees who just don’t feel comfortable or ready to do that,” she says. “The challenge is that all the issues we’ve previously experienced around having split teams and creating an effective hybrid model still remain.”
Image: Fauxels by Pexels
Where possible, businesses should treat employees who are hesitant to return to the physical office on a case-by-case basis, she says. And HR practitioners should recognise that allowing employees to work from home isn’t just about offering flexibility in a changing workforce, “it’s about psychological and physical safety in a way that we’ve not considered before,” says Sadler.
“We need to be careful and considered in how we have those conversations with people about what they feel is safe, and how you’re going to roll that out in the workforce.”
Flexibility and autonomy in a changing workforce
With shifting power dynamics in the labour market, many employees are looking for greater autonomy. Seventy per cent of employees want a management approach that empowers them rather than a command-and-control workplace, according to research from The Access Group.
The same research found that 47 per cent of Australian companies are sticking to established ways of operating – and limiting employees’ self-determination in the process.
With the threat of the Great Resignation looming, affording employees greater freedom and flexibility will likely be key to retaining talent in a changing workforce.
Rather than overhauling a company’s entire management approach, there are quick and easy ways to offer employees more freedom. This could include giving an employee a project to manage, allowing employees to set their own goals and structure their work day and granting greater flexibility beyond working from home, for example working outside the traditional 9-to-5.
“We’ve had a taste of autonomy, and we like it,” says Sadler. “For very traditional industries and managers this can be a challenge.”
“It’s great if you want to try and accommodate everyone, but you also need some business pragmatism and commercial reality.” – CPHR, AHRI’s South Australian State President and CEO of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions.
An important role for HR is identifying managers who are reluctant to loosen the reins, and then helping them to grant their direct reports more freedom. For example, they might need to work through the idea that it’s often the result that matters – not how an employee arrived at it.
“Everyone has a different style and different needs of their manager that will bring out the best in them,” she says. “We need to approach that with the same consideration we always have. People are still people.”
Handling leave requests
Australians have more annual leave days banked than ever before. In fact, the number of annual leave days owing hit 185 million in September – up 35.5 million days from a year earlier.
This means that once the current COVID-19 wave dies down and people become more confident about travel, leave requests are likely to start rolling in.
While it’s in the interests of businesses to reduce high leave liabilities, Sadler says employers need to have a plan in place should an employee get stuck interstate or overseas.
“You need to do a risk assessment and understand that things don’t always go according to plan,” she says. “If an employee plans to travel overseas, taking several weeks off to exhaust their leave, and they get stuck, what happens?”
This might be less of an issue if the employee can work remotely, but for those who can’t, it’s important to remember it’s not the employer’s responsibility to find work for them to do, says Sadler.
An alternative might be to offer an employee unpaid leave, but there will likely be a “finite tolerance”.
“It’s great if you want to try and accommodate everyone, but you also need some business pragmatism and commercial reality,” she says. “There needs to be some thought given to managing those things.”
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