Keller Augusta Partners

Allowing more work from home? Avoid these common mistakes.

Allowing more work from home? Avoid these common mistakes.

May 27, 2021

As companies transition to a hybrid model with work-from-home options, experts say companies should set tangible expectations and clearly communicate their policies.

Alexandra Schrecengost specializes in helping companies build and maintain their unique cultures.

But for Schrecengost, founder of New York-based Culture with Us, the evolving nature of workplaces is an entirely new animal.

"The physical, mental and emotional wellness of employees really does come into play when you consider the different options they have," Schrecengost said. "What's the art of blending that? What's the compromise to ensure that business can drive forward?"

Schrecengost said the hybrid shift offers an avenue to reset culture and boost morale, retention and productivity, but only if companies can navigate a minefield of potential HR headaches, tax pitfalls and other hurdles.

Here are some best practices for crafting your company's work-from-home or hybrid workplace model.

Don’t overlook your culture or your unique personalities.

Experts say there's no one-size-fits-all approach to a hybrid model. Every business and its teams have their unique histories that will factor into their post-pandemic dynamic.

"The largest thing is not losing the essence of the company just because you have teams dispersed all over the place," Schrecengost said. "A lot of organizations are at a loss as to how to not lose it."

Schrecengost suggests companies bring their mission statements to the forefront and work with employees to find a middle ground that strikes a balance between productivity, flexibility and achieving that mission.

As companies take those steps, Schrecengost said they need to consider the different personalities and life situations in their offices.

For example, some younger workers and recent college graduates may yearn for a full return because they want the camaraderie and professional development opportunities that come with being on-site.

A more established worker with young children or aging parents, on the other hand, may prefer a more flexible arrangement.

Schrecengost encourages companies to find common ground in those situations and make sure the employee knows the company is committed to finding a solution.

Most companies will also have a mix of introverts and extroverts, and Schrecengost said businesses should take that into account when pursuing a hybrid model.

"You may have an introvert that is incredibly productive, but gets overwhelmed with the water cooler talk," Schrecengost said. "A lot of people got used to working remotely, and they loved it."

Don't forget to communicate.

For many companies, the hybrid model will represent a vast departure from the pre-Covid-19 world.

A number of businesses are embracing work-from-home setups for the first time. That’s a big change on its own.

Add in the challenges that will result from having a mix of in-person and remote workers on a day-to-day basis, and experts say it’s a recipe for tension, trust issues and other management challenges.

Kate Keller, principal of Keller Augusta, a Boston-based national boutique search firm focused on the commercial real estate industry, suggests companies have training sessions on the hybrid model to ease anxiety and maintain productivity in the early stages.

“[Training] is essential for successfully integrating a hybrid work model into your return-to-office plan,” Keller said.

Experts say it’s also important to set tangible expectations about working from home and productivity goals.

Once companies are actually operating in the hybrid environment, Schrecengost said ongoing communication is key. Companies need to find ways to keep workers engaged while not scaring them or coming off as overbearing.

Schrecengost encourages companies to communicate through a variety of channels, including email, video chats and events that bring the staff together. When those meetings occur, she suggests being transparent and also offering opportunities for workers to provide input on how the hybrid model is going.

Don’t make promises you can't keep.

When Covid-19 sent millions to a remote work environment last year, some companies were quick to pull the trigger on a permanent work-from-anywhere arrangement.

As the dust has settled and companies researched tax implications and other consequences, many of those businesses had to take a step back from those declarations. Concerns over taxes are a common culprit, and experts say it's paramount companies do their research on tax implications before announcing their policy.

Michael L. Raff, director of the tax department at Northfield, Illinois-based Gordon Law Group Ltd. said many businesses are discovering employees may have moved far away from their offices since the start of the pandemic — sometimes without informing the employer.

“You might unknowingly be subject to being out of compliance with payroll tax withholding (rules),” he said.

To avoid going back on work-from-home promises, Raff said companies can create an approval and tracking process for work-from-home employees. That could include a list of acceptable locations, such as places where the company has a physical presence.

Don't make decisions in a silo.

In addition to research and due diligence, experts say companies need to have a dialogue with employees before finalizing policies.

Schrecengost said those conversations are important for maintaining culture because they help employees feel valued and included in the process.
Amy Marcum, manager of HR services for Kingwood, Texas-based professional employer organization Insperity Inc., said the dialogue with employees is important for generating buy-in for a company's post-pandemic strategy.

But if companies solicit feedback, Marcum said they should be prepared to act on their recommendations. Surveys have shown there is a disconnect between what employees expect and what employers are planning. That could prove problematic in what's expected to be a high-turnover environment.

Employers also need to make certain they are willing to hold up their end of the bargain, as it could be damaging to morale to quickly walk back promises on work-from-home frequency.

Once a policy is finalized, companies need to work on the messaging to avoid ambiguity.

"Communication is going to be the crux of this whole process," Marcum said.