Why the return to offices is a once in a lifetime opportunity for HR leaders

As vaccine rollouts gather steam, leaders and teams are preparing for the long-awaited return to offices. But what kind of work environment awaits on the other side?

That's up to leaders and their teams to decide. In a recent webinar with our Head of Content Liz Fosslien, Laszlo described how leaders can seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve company culture, elevate the role of HR, and transform their entire organization.  

Liz Fosslien (LF): What recent trends are you seeing across Humu’s enterprise customers?

Laszlo Bock (LB): First, burnout and wellbeing are top-of-mind for executives, so there’s a bigger focus on the people function than ever before. At Microsoft, the share of messages sent between 6 pm and midnight after working hours doubled, and people who previously did not work much on weekends saw their weekend collaboration triple. It's no surprise that research by Asana found that 71% of workers experienced burnout at least once in 2020.

Second, there’s a need for speed: leaders know they need to increase agility or they’ll fall behind the competition. To do that, they need a solution that’s more agile than the heavy training programs they’re used to.

Third, the shift to hybrid work is going to be much harder than people think. It’s a resetting of norms that teams spent the last 12 months establishing. In some organizations, like Slack and even at Humu itself, almost 40% of the team was hired during COVID. These people have never met in person and might not be embedded in your culture.

LF: Given that context, why is the return to offices such a unique opportunity for organizations?

LB: Here’s the thing: when your people come back into the office, you can either let everyone fall back into old ways of working, or you can seize the opportunity to kickstart practices that will improve your culture.

We’ve all changed because of the pandemic, but the office hasn’t. So the default will be for your teams to do what they’ve always done. The best leaders will focus on intentionally designing culture, rather than letting culture happen by default.

There’s a chance for more forward thinking CEOs and CHROs to strengthen or shift their cultures, and really redefine who they are. But the only way to make that change happen is to change small behaviors in the flow of work. Otherwise, you’ll just be falling back into the ways of working that don’t work.

LF: What do you mean by the old ways of working? Why don’t they work?


LB: Training is a great example. Companies spend an average of $1,000 per employee on training, but only 1/3 of employees believe trainings actually help. And they’re not wrong: 75% of newly learned information is lost if it isn’t applied on the job within six days.

The old ways of checking in on employees, like doing surveys or “pulsing,” don’t work either. Only 8% of employees agreed their company improves from surveys. Action planning, meanwhile, is well-intentioned but ineffective. 80% of leaders think it doesn’t actually make a difference.

LF: Why is this a unique opportunity for HR leaders specifically?

LB: Over the past year, as people-related challenges like burnout have skyrocketed, HR has become more of a strategic partner to the CEO.

Now, HR leaders can leverage that position to reset the culture of their organization. I recommend starting the conversation with your CEO as soon as possible. Ask, “What do we want to do better? What gaps exist in our culture, and how can we close them? Do we want to make inclusion a priority? Or growth?” The changes you want to make won’t just happen with banners and slogans: you need to focus on small, everyday moments.

LF: What are specific steps HR leaders should be taking today to prepare for the return to offices?

LB: To make the most of this fresh start, you need more than a plan: you need to be able to adjust quickly and engage every single employee. First, as a leader, list specific norms you’d like to set and find small ways to reinforce them. If inclusion or innovation are important to you, for example, make sure people are speaking up in meetings.

Focus on quick wins that can drive immediate, noticeable improvement. You want to signal that things aren’t going to be the same as they were pre-pandemic.

Ask yourself, “What can I do day 1 to motivate people and earn their trust? What can I model in my own behavior? What can I positively reinforce?” And then plan ahead. What will you do on day 2 to build on this? What will you do on day 10?

Those quick wins should activate everyone, engaging the frontline and empowering managers. The fastest way to hit all those groups quickly is to leverage technology like Humu’s, which can reach thousands of employees at once with laser-focused, differentiated messages.

LF: What mindsets will be especially important for leaders to adopt in the coming months?

LB: Embrace experimentation. What works for one team might not work for another, so it’s important for leaders to remain open-minded to new ways of working — then set up recurring check-ins to see how things are going. This is an area where Humu can help: our platform dynamically adapts to what each team needs, experimenting and strengthening as they come together.

Next, lead with empathy. Returning to the offices and breaking out of the routines we’ve all adopted will bring up a lot of emotions after a difficult year — so be patient. The pandemic also affected different groups differently. Partner with employee resource groups to make sure you’re aware of and can address the concerns of all your people.

Vaccines are coming, which means there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Visionary HR leaders will focus not just on the bare minimum of coming back to work, but on making that work better overall. And that’s where Humu can help: with individual, personalized coaching in the flow of people’s everyday work.

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