Over the past few years, we’ve seen some exceptional nonprofit and association leaders transition to hybrid or remote work models. Those who are most successful seem to share one common priority—their employees. Amid challenges that can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, they keep staff needs central to their decision-making. Here is a framework to help you develop employee-centric policies that ultimately lead to more satisfied (and high-performing) employees.

The Purpose of the Office

Coming into the office shouldn’t be something you do just because you always have. According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 survey, employees today “are looking for offices that are both highly effective and offer a desirable mix of experiences.” And they definitely don’t want to dress up and make the commute to sit on Zoom calls.

Is your office a hub for collaboration? A place to develop professional relationships? A space for spontaneous interaction and creativity? Whatever purpose the office serves, your policies should communicate how you plan to get there. A few prompts to guide your thinking:

  • What can we do together that we can’t do remotely? How do we make sure employees know what to expect for in-office time?
  • Does everyone come in on the same days? Are there different rules for different teams or certain positions? Do some roles require a physical presence while others don’t? Who makes those decisions? What are the exceptions?
  • Is our time in-office all about work, or is social engagement a priority? What does social engagement mean for our teams day-to-day, and how can we provide structure to encourage it?
  • If we have to use video conferencing in the office, how can we increase the value of that interaction in a meaningful way?
  • If travel to the office is required, who pays for it? Do our commuter benefits extend to employees in different states?

Employee Well-Being and Engagement

Gallup reported that the “foundation for improving mental health among workers is employee engagement.” Although there is some evidence that remote workers have a slightly elevated risk, according to a recent SHMR analysis, “mental health issues have been a growing concern for all workers, regardless of their working arrangement.” And research shows that happy, healthy employees tend to perform better. But the needs of remote and in-office employees will differ. A few questions to explore:

  • What are the different considerations for our in-office and remote employees? Do we have a mechanism in place to assess their different needs?
  • How can we help employees in different environments establish healthy work-life boundaries and avoid burnout? How do we ensure we don’t overwork employees who have the flexibility to work outside typical work hours?
  • How can we help remote employees feel a sense of belonging to our work culture day-to-day? How can we encourage people to share their perspectives? And then take action so everyone feels heard?
  • How do we ensure employees feel connected to each other and our mission? Will we hold regular staff retreats?

Supporting Professional Growth

Career growth is important. According to a 2022 study published in Frontiers of Psychology, career growth—and the perception that your employer actively supports it—is positively linked to employee engagement and retention. Yet for remote employees, there are potential hidden inequities driven by proximity bias or the tendency to treat workers who are physically closer more favorably. A study from Robin Powered, Inc. found that “62% of leaders said that in-office time was either a somewhat or very important factor in an employee receiving a promotion or salary increase.” A few questions to consider:

  • How do we ensure all employees have equitable opportunities, resources, and professional development regardless of how much time they spend in the office?
  • How do we intentionally foster relationship-building and mentorship, particularly for early-career employees? How can we structure our level of support to match the needs of employees working in different environments at different stages of their careers?
  • What are the formal or informal career paths in our organization? Do visibility and ad-hoc interactions play an outsized role? Do we need to rethink patterns in how employees advance?

Leadership Training for Managers of Distributed Teams

Managing a distributed team is a unique skill set. Without intentional training, even an experienced leader may not easily transition to managing people they don’t see every day. And employee expectations around management are evolving too.

A 2022 Harvard Business Review analysis describes “a subtle but important shift in how employees expected their managers to work with them. They wanted their managers to be present, hands-on, and operationally vigilant without being intrusive.” And a recent Gallup survey found that “70% of a team’s engagement is influenced by managers.” Here are a few ideas to discuss with your leadership team:

  • Do our managers know what we expect of them in supporting distributed teams? Have they been trained on our policies to apply them consistently and fairly?
  • Have we reviewed our onboarding plan and made adjustments that make sense for both in-person and remote staff?
  • Have we discussed any changes in what we expect from employees, and have we communicated that clearly? Are we concerned with activity (being busy) vs. getting good work done?
  • How will we measure performance equally for remote and in-person staff? Do our managers understand how to assess and nurture employees’ strengths in different environments?
  • What core hours will we follow? What timeframe will we set for formal meetings to accommodate employees across time zones?

Creating the Norms of Tomorrow

A common argument against going remote or hybrid is concern about a drop in employee productivity, what HR Consultant Josh Bershin refers to as “productivity paranoia.” It can be easy to fall back on (ineffective) management strategies that focus on outputs rather than big-picture outcomes. But if you want employees to give their best to your organization in a sustainable, long-term way, they need to feel engaged, supported, and valued at work. And what that looks like for distributed teams is different than the traditional in-office model.

If you think about how your policies impact employees at work and home, the hard work of supporting them—however complex—will pay off in the long run. You’re not just creating new policies for this moment; you are establishing new norms for the future.

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