HR Managers: How to Transition to a Hybrid Work Model

As COVID vaccination rates increase and infection rates decrease across the U.S., some companies, such as Microsoft, Google, and Dropbox, have opted to keep remote work a permanent option for their employees.  But as the past year has shown, remote work comes with a serious set of challenges for employees’ mental wellbeing.  However, returning to the office also presents challenges for HR managers as employees try to adjust to the new normal, this has led to an increase in the hybrid work model.

Some experts believe that hybrid workplaces that allow remote and in-person options are one way to balance the stressors of working fully remote and entirely in-person.  But to be successful, HR managers must be mindful of the challenges employees face in the current work environment and take specific steps to support their employees during this unprecedented transition.

Wellbeing and Remote Work

Longer work hours, a feeling of “everlasting urgency,” and maintaining work/life balance are just some of the challenges that come with remote work – and that’s without a pandemic.  COVID-19 upped the ante by forcing many employees into social isolation, which can negatively affect their mental wellbeing.

Sapien Lab’s Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) assessment tool found that across a sample of 47,000 adults, those who socialized with friends and family several days a week had wellbeing scores 66 points higher than those who rarely or never did.  Those who rarely or never socialized in person were more likely to engage in avoidance and withdrawal when faced with stressful situations. In a time of crisis, the last thing a company wants to face is an unmotivated, avoidant workforce.

Wellbeing and Returning to Work

The MHQ found that people who had experienced financial or social challenges during the pandemic had wellbeing scores that were 25 points lower than those who did not.  Some returning workers likely experienced a traumatic event over the past year, such as losing a loved one to COVID or getting sick themselves.  Combined with the effects of social isolation, employees returning for in-person work may experience physical symptoms of stress, such as heart palpitations, headaches, and sleep problems.  HR managers should be aware that many employees returning to the office are still recovering from the damage of the pandemic.

Tips for HR Managers considering a hybrid work model

HR managers can take action to help support and strengthen employees’ mental wellbeing, no matter where they choose to work.

1) Give Employees a Choice

When transitioning to a hybrid model, sometimes companies will hand down mandates about how it will work.  For example, executives may require employees to come in three days a week instead of five or only allowing remote work in specific circumstances.  However, several experts suggest that the hybrid model works best when employees are allowed to choose whether or not they want to work remotely.

Given that each individual has different stressors and situations in their lives, they are the best people to decide what working style will work best for themselves and their families. Also, research into wellbeing shows that when employers give their staff more control over decision-making for themselves, they are less likely to experience symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses [1,2].

2) Get a Baseline

To address mental wellbeing at an organizational level, HR managers need to know which factors negatively impact employees and which factors positively influence their wellbeing.  The Workforce MHQ is a tool that managers can use to identify these factors and adjust policies and practices to address employees’ pain points.  Not only is this useful at a leadership level, but employees also receive an individualized report that explains their mental wellbeing scores and offers some next steps for the employee.    These baseline measurements will give HR managers a place to start before implementing specific programs.

3) Training, Training, Training

Most managers did not go into lockdown with any knowledge about managing a remote team.  Now, they must adapt again and learn how to manage hybrid teams.  Providing training for managers can help ease the transition to the new work environment.  It can also help prevent potential pitfalls from occurring.

One of the risks of the hybrid work model is that remote employees may miss out on informal conversations that influence decision-making and advancement opportunities. Therefore, training should emphasize documenting these conversations and making them available to the team to avoid miscommunication.

Finally, HR managers should also consider training to encourage employees to implement work-life boundaries.  Learning to set and stick with work hours and clearly communicate when they are unavailable can be especially helpful to address workers’ fatigue and burnout.

4) Measure your Success

When HR managers use the Workforce MHQ to gather initial insights, they can go back and use the MHQ again to measure changes in workforce mental wellbeing.  These metrics are incredibly useful to demonstrate if company policy changes or trainings improved employees’ wellbeing.  With that information, companies can make informed decisions about the best way to support their workers’ mental wellbeing as we all transition to the “new normal.”

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[1] Harvey, S.B., Modini, M., Joyce, S., et al  (2017). Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems.

[2] Theorell, R., Hammarstrom, A., Aronsson, G.,et al (2015). A systemic review including meta-analysis of work environment and depressive symptoms.  BMC Public Health, 15:738.