Twelve months ago, HR teams were in sombre meeting rooms deciding what to do next. It was the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, not just in the UK, but globally, and protocol – at least for most – did not extend to COVID-19. Where once profit margins and pay gap reporting had been top of the agenda, now physical health was a matter of the utmost corporate importance.

And the rest is history. Within weeks, employees were spread across cities, in a myriad of flats and houses, some with children and other caring responsibilities, others living at home alone, often with just one thing to unite them – a piece of legacy technology that they’d likely never used outside of the office before.

Undoubtedly, the onus was firmly on HR teams to retain the same feeling of togetherness and belonging for employees that having a shared, physical space assumed. And, as the UK’s remote workforce grew exponentially, a new company culture had to now be curated – and fast – to ensure employees were engaged and supported against all odds.

As lockdown measures ease and offices reopen, the same onus will be placed on HR teams again to establish a new, hybrid workforce, and it will be important to take forward the lessons learned over the past year to do so.

Striking a balance between work and home

Working from home used to be thought of as a more “casual” way of working. Not just when it came to how you dressed, but a way to get your hair cut or meet for a long lunch on company time – or so people thought. Now more of us work from home, a growing number of remote workers feel a need to be “always on” during working hours – and beyond – as they haven’t any need to commute and they don’t want to be accused of doing less than their fair share. Ironically, however, this is leading to screen time burn out which often makes us much less productive.

Organisations should consider offering employees a time slot a week in which they can get away from their computer during working hours to go out with their families or escape to the gym. It’s about considering impact and outcomes vs house/presence at work. There needs to be a perfect balance between flexibility and structure that suits your organisations, your industry and, ultimately, the individual needs of your employees.

All of this hinges on a sense of “permission”, or possibly even instruction, to spend one’s time doing something other than work. After all, it’s the psychological burden of being “always on” virtually that has the most adverse effects.

Making sure there aren’t “two tiers” of employees

None of us will be surprised to learn that working from home and working in an office are two very different experiences and can lead to very different outcomes, but it’s important that it doesn’t lead to being treated differently by the company you work for. For one, the office chatter that we all used to take for granted has been silenced by the new virtual world, but they’re often serious drivers of career opportunities or conversations about career progression; and managers should keep that in mind in a post-COVID world.

Nepotism is a dirty word in business, but it’s vital that we don’t create a new form of it – in which managers favour or promote those that they see more often in the office – in the “new normal”. Whether you’re privy to it or not, all employees work hard and should be valued in the same way irrespective of whether they work from home or not.

To do this successfully relies on shifting the focus from presence and activity to outcomes and impact. It’s about rethinking performance processes, as well as how your organisation assesses talent and potential in a way that’s much more objective and – frankly – more valuable.

Keeping wellbeing and mental health a priority

Mental health and wellbeing have always been key to organisations’ successes and failures – whether consciously or otherwise. In a new virtual world, it’s important that this becomes an even greater priority and that any physical office space is designed purposefully – not just a room full of desks and desktops. Only then will employees visit the workspace deliberately and have a reason to get out of their houses and interact with their colleagues, friends and managers. Now more than ever, companies must be caring to their staff and build resilience and comfort. Any lack of social connection needs to be managed and addressed where possible – whether through the office space or through the facilitation of networking events online.

One thing’s for sure, the only constant over the last year for businesses has been change. After a turbulent twelve months, the hard work of HR teams has never been more vital and more celebrated. The next few months will be yet another opportunity to build on that and rise to the new challenge of hybrid working in 2021.

EX becomes DX

The uncomfortable relationship between HR and tech needs to be addressed; it’s important now and will only become more important in the future as the tech agenda and roadmap becomes central to your employee value proposition experience. Much more than a facility through which to communicate or hold meetings, tech is the means through which the relationship between manager and team, colleagues and individuals and their employer is formed. HR needs to work in close partnership with the business, with internal IT and with partners to make sure that all tech is attuned to the organisational values and creates a basis for easy, productive working – and is accessible to all.