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Should HR Professionals Be Required to Work in the Office Full Time?

Two HR experts debate the issue.

HR needs to be present to support executives and employees alike.

It's undeniable that there are many benefits of working remotely. But it's not for everyone or every job. And it's not for HR.

HR professionals play a critical role in today's workplace, and their physical presence is required. Working remotely full time is just not feasible. Here's why:

The way we work has evolved. To succeed, cross-functional, interdisciplinary teams must break down silos and increase communication. HR needs to be present for these teams as a strategic partner, helping them understand team dynamics and break down barriers to communication.

A few years ago, 40 percent of IBM's workers telecommuted full-time, but company leaders decided to bring thousands of them back to the office. The goal was to transform the company's employees into an agile workforce wherein teams collaborate and interact in the same location.

The role of HR professionals has become more strategic. HR practitioners cannot simply think about HR in a vacuum. Their job is to help executives and key departmental leaders align human capital strategy with business goals. They need to be in the office to do that. They must be the go-to source for people analytics that drive business decisions and HR strategy. Why would HR practitioners want to be away from the C-suite every day?

HR supports employees. Human resource professionals need to be present to support individual employees. Today's workers are stressed. Worries about job security, constant organizational changes, and family and financial concerns all take a toll on wellness, productivity and employee engagement.

Each year, an increasing number of staff members come to me about mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and psychoses that require urgent referral. I would not have been able to help these people if I were not in the office regularly, getting to know them and building enough trust for them to reach out for assistance.

The next generation is coming. As Generation Z enters the workforce, it's notable that 43 percent of its members report that they prefer face-to-face collaboration, according to a survey from consultancy XYZ University. Only 24 percent prefer text messages.

That and the challenge of managing multiple generations in the workplace will require HR practitioners to be onsite to advise managers and senior leaders on how to craft employee communications.

Of course, we all need to take care of ourselves. Self-care for HR professionals is critical. Time off, exercise and meditation are very good ways to re-energize. And an occasional day working from home can help relieve the stress of a commute, leaving more time for thinking and special projects that require concentration.

But being remote every day is not an option for HR professionals.

David Epstein, SHRM-SCP, is director of domestic human resources for Doctors Without Borders in the USA, based in New York City, and a member of SHRM's Global Special Expertise Panel.

HR professionals should benefit from the many advantages of telecommuting.

The human resource department has historically been located where a company's employees work―available at a moment's notice to answer questions, provide advice or even serve as a "referee" when conflicts arise among employees.

But in a world where the definition of "workplace" continues to expand, an HR professional no longer needs to be located in the office.

There's plenty of evidence that remote work is becoming more accepted, and even expected in some cases. Approximately 3.7 million employees (or 2.8 percent of the U.S. workforce) work from home at least half of the time, and the number of people who telecommute regularly has increased by 115 percent since 2005, according to the 2017 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. As competition for the best talent tightens, it only makes sense that companies give workers the flexibility to work offsite.

The benefits of remote work are numerous:

  • No stress from commutes. Driving to work can be tedious. There's the hassle (and some days even chaos) of getting out the door on time, only to then find yourself stuck in traffic. Why not eliminate that aggravation?
  • Better work/life balance and better focus. We all have personal responsibilities that consume our time and attention. No commute means more time to attend to those issues. As a result, your focus at work will improve. Not to mention your workdays can start earlier and end later with minimal effect on home life.
  • Reduced financial burden. Telecommuters save money on gas, tolls, public transportation and parking. Taken together, those can equate to a fairly significant salary increase.
  • Greater productivity. A Stanford University study of 500 employees at Chinese travel agency Ctrip found that telecommuters were significantly more productive than when they were in the office, took shorter breaks, logged fewer sick days and took less time off. Attrition among the remote workers also decreased by 50 percent compared to other employees.

All of these benefits can and should be available to HR professionals.

Granted, we need to be accessible to the company's employees. However, "accessible" no longer means "onsite." Smartphones, chat platforms and even old-fashioned e-mail have made most employees, including HR professionals, accessible anytime, anywhere. Need to meet "face to face"? Video chat platforms can provide a comparable experience.

Many companies require full-time telecommuters to be onsite periodically to connect in "real life." That can easily be built into a telecommuting policy.

Moreover, the nature of our work continues to evolve. I don't know many HR folks who simply sit at their desks waiting for the phone to ring or for an employee to show up with an issue to be resolved. HR specialists are working on projects or leading project teams, analyzing data, serving as internal communications experts, evaluating and implementing technology, developing succession plans, and sourcing and recruiting talent. Many of these duties do not need to be done in a specific physical location.

The world we live in, the definitions of "work" and "workplace," and the technology available to get work done anytime and anywhere continue to evolve. Human resources as a profession can, and should, evolve with them.

Jennifer Payne, SHRM-SCP, is manager, talent management and engagement, at Tops Markets, a regional grocery chain based in Buffalo, N.Y., and editor of the Women of HR blog.


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