Return-to-Work Policies That Support Employee Wellbeing
By Judy Courtney
In today’s workplace, leaders are facing some of the most pressing challenges of their careers. The reality of the past three years has made it clear just how important it is for companies to support employees from an emotional and mental health standpoint, rather than exclusively focusing on professional development.
This fact influences every corner of a business, right down to the office environment – another area where business leaders have had to rethink everything they thought they once knew.
Here at New York Interconnect, as we’ve returned to the office, we’ve had to rethink everything we thought we knew about helping people achieve professional and personal balance, and we’re continuing to listen and refine our approach as we go.
But one thing is already clear: Despite challenges, we know that when we stretch our purviews to care for their people more holistically, the positive effects are evident.
Balancing hybrid arrangements
In the pandemic, we learned that employees can balance their work and personal obligations in a fluid manner when given the chance and tools to do so. But perhaps more importantly, we also learned why people need this sense of control and balance within their lives.
But that’s not to say we got it right straight away.
We initially thought empowering team managers to decide if and how often their employees were expected to be in the office made the most sense. But from an individual and cultural wellbeing standpoint, we quickly found that the wide variances in policies and expectations were creating a sense of unfairness among teams.
As such, we adjusted to provide a bit more structure, requesting that all employees be in the office two days a week. Later, we adjusted this policy to three days a week, based on the needs of the business and the benefits we were seeing in bringing employees together more often..
From a leadership standpoint, when the benefit to increasing in-office time became apparent, it would have been easy to take the approach of, “Well, people used to work in the office five days a week, so three days shouldn’t be a big deal.”
But that’s the wrong mindset. We realized that what “used to be” doesn’t really matter anymore. Leaders need to listen to their teams about what matters now.
Here, when we decided to set the expectation of more in-office time, we knew we needed to listen to our employees and figure out how such a policy could be enacted in a way that prioritized their wellbeing, not just our business needs. The answer for us has been to preserve and prioritize employee flexibility and autonomy in the context of our new in-office expectations.
So, employees are now able to choose which days they will come to the office, and they know that last-minute changes will be respected if, and when, their personal lives demand a shift.
They also know that the three-day expectation is a guideline, not a rule.
We’re not keeping scores. Likewise, rather than stressing over prescribed office hours, we want to ensure that employees have the permission and confidence to determine which of their obligations are most important at any given moment.
For example, employees are able to take the time they need away from the office for doctor and other appointments, knowing they’re being trusted to shift their working hours as needed to accommodate those appointments. We want to give them the control and flexibility needed to prioritize their health and personal obligations.
Optimizing time spent in office
To the extent that leaders have realized how productive and empowering remote work can be for teams, they’ve also gained a newfound appreciation for just how fulfilling in-person interactions and relationships within the office environment can be.
It’s about much more than putting managers in touch with employees. It’s about creating important full-team learning and bonding, as well as peer-to-peer mentorship.
Such connections are tremendously important for not just professional and business development, but also for individual employee fulfillment and retention.
For companies like us, whose teams have come back to offices, whether full or part time, the question shouldn’t be how to “get back to normal,” but rather how that valuable in-office time can be better spent to maximize the sense of connection and contribution that people feel when they’re at work.
Why spend time commuting to an office just to lock yourself in a room and take the Zoom calls you could take from your bedroom? Office time provides the opportunity for so much more dynamic collaboration, and it should be structured intentionally in this way.
Here we encourage in-office employees to sit together for meetings (based on comfort levels), even when some attendees are virtual. The connection this human contact fosters can’t be understated, and the benefits we’ve seen in collaboration and morale have been immeasurable.
Beyond physically bringing people together, we’ve also listened to employees and found that they’re ready (eager, even), to return to many of the social elements of office life, such as happy hours and trivia nights.
We’ve reestablished lunch-and-learns and in-office massage days – not simply because we used to do it, but because we heard from our teams that these things provide value to them as individuals.
Building a workplace culture and environment that prioritizes employee mental and emotional wellbeing doesn’t just happen on its own. It requires a conscious effort to ensure employees know that their company values their contributions and health, and that effort needs to manifest in messaging, policies and – importantly – leadership’s own attitudes and actions.
Business leaders today are tasked with reorganizing their workforces around a new hybrid balance of remote and in-office time, determining how that in-office time should best be spent, and reimagining how physical office space can be configured for maximum benefit.
At the same time, there’s a new litmus test that needs to be applied to all decisions: Does this support the wellbeing of my employees? If the answer is “no,” it’s back to the drawing board.