4 Ways to Make Workplace Policies Flexible Enough to Keep the Employees You Want

Aug 22, 2022

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by Chris Rainey of the HR Leaders podcast. We had a thoughtful, practical discussion about how important it is for businesses to be flexible about workplace policies for in-person and hybrid scheduling—and why it’s so hard to do it well. If you’ve been struggling to develop a workplace policy that balances out the needs of both your employees and your organization, or if you’re looking for reassurance that you’ve planned the right approach, these four points from our conversation should be helpful—and inspire you to take confidence in the idea that it’s possible to make significant changes quickly. After all, that’s what everyone had to do in March 2020, when all protocols for work shifted almost overnight.

Be self-questioning if you get pushback on schedules. Say there’s currently a rule that everyone has to be in the office two days per week, but some employees don’t want to do that or else don’t want to come in on the specified two days. Legislating two days a week as an absolute requirement and a condition of maintaining employment is actually pretty arbitrary and characteristic of an old style of management that is no longer effective. So before you tell anyone they need to comply to keep their jobs, have a deep conversation with yourself and challenge your own assumptions.

Why do your employees need to be in the office two days? Does it really need to be the same two days for the entire company? Can each team choose their days so there’s more flexibility for smaller groups? Do people need to be physically present to accomplish some purpose together or have you been operating on the assumption that it’s important for people to show up so you can see that they’re still working? If you only need them to be present to prove that they’re still working or still a part of the team, look for other approaches. For instance, you could require that work be delivered at certain times, plan more frequent video check-ins, or have managers increase their schedule of one-on-ones. Maybe the necessary collaborative work only requires one day a week; if there’s a meeting that everyone needs to attend, perhaps there are ways to make it a productive hybrid meeting.

Ensure that required presence is always about connection and collaboration. It isn’t effective to require people to travel to the office to do the exact same work that they could do at home. On the other hand, there are aspects of work, like relationship work and creative teamwork, that benefit from a group setting. There may be online substitutes, but the organization will likely derive more value from a sense of connectedness. You’ll know the in-person requirement is successful when people are actually excited to come in and are clearly happy to be with each other. If that’s not the case, check multiple times to see what’s going wrong. Are relationship conflicts getting in the way? Is anyone exhibiting toxic behaviors? Are meetings not being run well? Does everyone get to participate in the meetings, and do those discussions move initiatives forward? If you’re not seeing real-world effects, think again about requiring people to come into the office.

Show that you value in-person time. Express gratitude for people being on premises—if they can’t tell that you’re glad to see them, you’ve already created a potential loss situation. Consider running a series of experiments to learn if there’s anything you can do to add extra value to the in-person time. What would improve employees’ commutes: high-quality travel mugs, small contributions to commutation tickets or gas? Can you provide snacks or meals for collaborative time in the office? Anything that adds to job satisfaction or reduces time, expense, or stress burdens could be worth trying.

Learn what employees need without committing to giving them everything they want. Every employee has different personal circumstances, and it’s tricky if not impossible to find a sweet spot or reasonable range to satisfy everyone. Not everyone gets ego satisfaction from their work. If they’re not satisfied by their working conditions and are unhappy in their personal lives, they may decide that changing their work may be easier than changing their lives, and you’ll lose employees. So target something that creates the right level of tradeoffs: Aim for having most people generally comfortable with the schedule, with occasional inconveniences and personal support whenever someone faces a personal challenge.

You don’t need to know every detail of each employee’s life, but it’s worth asking about each person’s major constraints or deal-breakers. Ask something like, “Which schedules or timing work well for you? Let’s see how much we can accommodate.” Then you’ll get the data to assess what will work for the most people and find out which situations will cause you to make exceptions. (There will always be exceptions.)

There are still so many options available in the labor market for high-quality employees that it’s worth exploring how you can be more flexible in ways that encourage your people to stay and contribute. It’s worth reconsidering your assumptions about what’s necessary as you try to find the optimal solutions for your organization.

Onward and upward —

By Liz Kislik