Searching the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) website for "hybrid" and "remote," as those terms relate to work, turns up well over 300 articles. Google provides a definition of the word hybrid: "The offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties such as a mule (hybrid of a donkey and a horse)." Here is its definition of remote: "situated far from the main centers of population; distant … having very little connection with or relationship to."
As we hopefully move toward a pandemic-under-control world, there may be better words to use. Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of the ThirdPath Institute, prefers the term "strategic flexibility." She views the issue holistically: Strategic flexibility is workplace flexibility for men and women, from entry-level to executive leadership positions, that takes into account whether they work better onsite or offsite. She also includes life stages, recognizing that employees' needs change.
DeGroot has seen the power of strategic flexibility in the community of leaders her nonprofit supports. Long before the pandemic, these leaders were experimenting with remote work as one of the options offered to employees to develop an integrated approach to work and life—one that allowed them to be successful at work while having time and energy for life responsibilities. This paid off during the pandemic. At ThirdPath's recent Leadership Summit, DeGroot discovered that, unlike many businesses today, none of the participants had lost a disproportionate number of female employees during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, she has also heard a number of less-progressive stories, including those that illustrate outdated thinking by HR. "Too often, HR sees itself as rule enforcers for the way things have always been done," she said.
DeGroot shares the story of an engineer who had successfully worked remotely a few days a week his entire career. During the pandemic, he and other team members were laid off, but his confidence in his ability to work remotely inspired him to apply for a position that was physically located a four-hour drive from his home. It was a company he had been following due to its groundbreaking work, and since its employees had been working remotely for a year, he saw it as an opportunity to join the organization.
When interviewed by one of the company vice presidents, the engineer was told, "HR's policy is that you cannot work remotely. There's nothing I can do about it." But then the vice president confided that he had two team members who worked remotely long before the pandemic, one living even farther away than a four-hour drive.
DeGroot believes HR can be instrumental in creating strategically flexible workplaces. "This includes messaging to current employees and potential new hires, partnerships with managers to help them develop the skills to manage remote work teams and revising job descriptions," she said. In this way, and with the support of senior leaders, "HR can make a major contribution to their organizations' success," she added.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Delta Emerson, SHRM-SCP, then CHRO of Ryan LLC, a worldwide tax advisory firm, began promoting strategic flexibility at her workplace. "When I joined the company," she said, "exempt employees were expected to put in a minimum of 50 hours a week of in-person time, and hours were rigidly tracked. This caused lots of stress [and] home pressures and resulted in our losing good people."
Emerson persuaded her CEO to move away from this model and to embrace strategic flexibility. HR partnered with leadership to create productivity dashboards that eliminated the need for fixed hours at the workplace.
Emerson's team was careful to identify and track the metrics her numbers-oriented boss liked to see. These included retention rates, revenue per employee, client satisfaction scores, employee engagement scores, and overall economic growth and profitability. Under the new approach, each of these numbers substantially improved. These metrics were shared at each board meeting, highlighting the progress being made.
The journey took years, with lots of experiments, some that worked and some that didn't. Emerson notes that initially, there was resistance. "We had some old-school leaders who couldn't imagine the kind of workplace we were envisioning," she said. "Over time, however, as positive results became evident, resistance dissipated."
To maintain productivity and accountability along with flexibility, HR worked with the IT and finance departments to create dashboards that set clear expectations for each position and that measured how each employee was meeting those expectations. Learning and development was customized for remote teams and remote leaders. Priority was given to developing managers' coaching skills.
The company expanded strategic flexibility to employees in different countries where cultural differences had to be factored in. "Commitment to strategic flexibility is not like flipping a light switch," Emerson said. "It takes a lot of effort and a lot of work. Mistakes will be made. Adjustments will happen. Yet the results make the investment very much worth it."
When the pandemic hit, Ryan didn't miss a beat because of the work that had already been done to create a culture and tools that embraced flexibility. This year, Glassdoor ranked its CEO No. 2 for his leadership in prioritizing the well-being of employees.
Because of the pandemic, numerous organizations that had never contemplated strategic flexibility before have had to adjust. Now, rather than returning to the old ways, let's take advantage of this otherwise disastrous event to rethink how work is done. For HR, that means moving from a compliance mindset to embracing strategic flexibility.
"HR professionals have a huge opportunity," Emerson said. "Instead of being viewed as the compliance cop, HR can be the hero. And in so doing, it can make a wonderful difference in the working world and the bottom line of companies."
Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of Organization Development Network Oregon and was named by Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.