Embracing flexibility in the era of remote work
Managers place emphasis on tasks completed over time input
Particularly for working parents with remote learners, the Covid-19 pandemic thrust the struggle of work-life balance into the spotlight. To retain talent and cultivate employee loyalty, managers and HR leaders are taking an understanding approach and even using autonomy as a benefit for all workers.
It depends on the nature of the job, but in positions that lend the ability to do so, workers are embracing additional flexibility in how they arrange their work schedule around their personal and family’s well-being.
The traditional hours of 9 to 5, or some variation of it, have been tested during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly by working parents who have also had to manage their children’s remote learning schedules, which often overlap with their own.
At the onset of the pandemic, Concord-based Northeast Delta Dental sent 75% of its workforce home to work remotely. Most of them are equipped with headsets to handle customer service.
“We have had an awful lot of people who have kids who are trying to negotiate the whole remote school, remote work — family has a small apartment, family has one workspace that has to be shared,” says Vice President of Human Resources Connie Roy-Czyzowski, laying out the challenges faced. Recognizing the extent of the situation, Delta Dental has taken an understanding approach.
“We have said, ‘We know in some cases, on some days, your productivity is not going to be there — do your best,’” says Roy-Czyzowski. The theme messaged to struggling employees is, “‘We’re hanging in there for you; do your best for us.’”
“When you tell people that, instead of leaning over their shoulder, they’re going to be loyal to you, and that relationship will be better off all the way around and forever,” explains Roy-Czyzowski. “People want people to trust them, and if you don’t trust them, you’re telling people, ‘I don’t believe you and I’m going to keep an eye on you,’ and that’s an absolutely horrible way to work.”
It doesn’t mean that workers are let off the hook for not completing work. There are many situations where workers are part of a team, where someone upstream or downstream is dependent on another worker.
However, for other work tasks, employees can work more hours one day than another because of a “special commitment,” says Roy-Czyzowski. Delta Dental defines its pay week as starting on Saturday and ending on Friday.
“We have makeup time. Most people want to get up in the morning, get ready for work, jump on their computer and have a defined amount of time they’re going to work — that works for most people. Around that core, there are daily, weekly, monthly changes, and people make up that time.”
HR professionals across the country are extending this degree of autonomy to all employees, even those who may be single, living alone.
No professional is sitting at their desk for eight hours straight, nor should they, for physical and mental health reasons. But working remotely doesn’t provide the spontaneous opportunities to chat with a co-worker or visit the water cooler.
Instead, workers may take a walk or jog outside, or even complete minor household tasks during the day and make up the work in the evening, says Ritchie Coladarci, director of human resources for Merchants Fleet.
“I think there is a realization people are going through a lot, so unless somebody is able to give their full self, they’re not going to be able to do well in their job, and a lot of that has to do with wellness,” says Coladarci.
Not all managers are used to managing workers out of sight. (Ironically, counter-intuitive to assumptions about tech-savviness, older managers and workers are more comfortable working remotely than younger managers and workers.)
“I’m working with managers because they’re used to managing a certain way and sometimes it’s that conversation, which is, ‘we need to focus on did the person get what they needed to get done for you?’” says Coladarci. “It’s not about somebody being at a desk and you see them working. Somebody needs to pick up their child or put the laundry in, or do this or do that, or bring somebody to the doctor.”
This conversation is taking place in HR circles across the country.
While the mindset of focusing on hours employees input at a desk has diminished over the past 15 to 25 years, it can take some experimentation to determine a new way of evaluating employee performance, says Roy-Czyzowski.
But Delta Dental has reached a successful formula.
“When you have goals and you measure people against their goals, and people get the job done based on the measurements to those goals — assuming the goals are robust enough and correct for your business — that’s how you measure people,” she explains. “It’s not time in the seat. How do you know somebody’s zoned out? Just because they’re in the seat doesn’t mean they’re productive.”
Coladarci thinks HR is “moving in a direction that is looking at things a little more compassionately.”
“During a time like this, the companies that are able to engage and increase morale are doing those things,” he says.
Sure enough, workers are hesitant to jump ship for positions of seemingly equal or greater value, New Hampshire staffing firms are finding. Some speculate it could be a reaction to the pandemic and its unwieldy negative impact on particular businesses, causing workers to stay where they feel their job is secure. (One recruiter noted he was forced to switch jobs during the pandemic when the payroll company he worked for made cuts after its hospitality clients lost business as a result of the government-imposed shutdown and restrictions.)
However, there may be more behind candidates’ decision-making.
“I am seeing companies where the people not only are staying put, but they’re being well taken care of, to make sure they stay put,” says John Roller, owner of Express Employment in Manchester. He recruits engineering and executive positions in manufacturing. Some flexibility with remote is part of the wish list of benefits some workers request, though the nature of the positions do not lend themselves well to remote work, he says.
Generally, higher pay, additional paid sick leave and additional flexibility where it can be allowed are being extended to employees.
“I think there are a lot of defensive precautions by companies,” says Roller. “They’re treating their people really well, paying them really well, and it’s working so they don’t leave. This is something I’ve never seen before to this degree, and this goes back to the mid-‘80s.”
“Employers are realizing they don’t want to lose people and they’re somewhat protective of the great talent they have,” concurs Roy-Czyzowski. “More and more businesses realize there are a lot of great examples of great companies to work for because there are contests, best places to work.”
While startups may have glitzy items like beer carts or climbing walls, what employees actually want is to work and feel they have a purpose, as well as benefits like flexibility and autonomy.
In light of the pandemic, Delta Dental also gave employees two weeks of additional paid emergency leave, “so people wouldn’t have that dilemma of, ‘do I come in sick?’” for the people who were coming in the office, says Roy-Czyzowski, though the company had to offer the policy to both in-office and remote employees.
During the six weeks that dental offices were closed at the onset of the pandemic, approximately 40 of Delta Dental’s staff of 200 were furloughed for six weeks. They had the option of using those two weeks of special emergency leave to get paid, and were awarded three sick days when they returned to work, in case it was needed.
These benefits, “in stressful times, during a pandemic, certainly help” with morale and retention, says Roy-Czyzowski. “I’ve reached out to employees a few times to share resources for learning at home for their kids,” as well as a variety of other useful information that’s sent through the workforce communication channels.
She’s even hired a facilitator to group together a dozen employees to hash out ideas for parents for about an hour every couple of weeks.
With 200 employees, the process allows for greater communication and sharing of best practices amongst workers who may not normally cross paths.
“People can have honest discussions of what has worked for them,” says Roy-Czyzowski. “People say, ‘Thank you so much for making this available. I was tearing my hair out, and now I can ask people at work about what I may not know.’”
Coladarci notes that the pandemic has created new situations where HR needs to be mindful.
For instance, companies cannot treat differently or discriminate against employees who have kids, and benefits thought first to be offered to some workers must be made available to all.
“I remember when we were trying to figure who comes in and who doesn’t come into the office. I wonder if there are more companies that will be (asking), ‘What’s your preference?’ To me it comes down to that,” says Coladarci. “There’s some people who thrive having people around, and there are some people who would prefer to work from home. Wouldn’t you want somebody to be in the most comfortable environment? And putting aside, there are some people who have medical conditions.”
Coladarci notes, prior to the pandemic, there were individuals who worked for global companies and with teams that were entirely remote.
“It wasn’t that much of a transition, and they had already found their rhythm and a manager knowing when to connect with employees, and how to engage online and still have those relationships,” he points out. “They were better at using some of the technologies (later adopted by most companies during the pandemic) whether that was Google Chat or Zoom.”
Embracing these technological tools has enabled employers, managers and workers to experiment with a new style of work and consider what the future of work might be as the “new normal” settles in.
“This pandemic has taxed a lot of us and challenged us, but it’s also given us opportunities to push ourselves and play outside more, be outdoors more, spend more time learning and reading,” reflects Roy-Czyzowski. “I started getting tired of Zoom at first — I love Zoom now, now that I know how to use it well. Although we can’t stand around the coffee pot and chat, you can break out into groups and I think it’s great.”
Liisa Rajala is associate editor of NH Business Review. She reports on a variety of topics including high-tech trends and social issues as it relates to New Hampshire’s workforce.