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Pivot Point: The CHRO’s Role in Determining When, Where, and How People Work

Recently, I spoke with an individual eyeing the CHRO role as their next career move. In their late forties, they straddle generational lines, not quite fitting into the Millennial category but embodying a perspective shaped by the digital age. Our discussion centered on hybrid work opportunities, where they firmly advocated for organizations to accommodate employees who don’t require full-time office presence. They see this flexibility not only as essential for fostering a progressive workplace aligned with today’s realities, but also as a potential source of innovation and productivity.

 

At the start of the year, in our annually awaited Crystal Ball Predictions, we identified the “return to office paradox” as a key HR trend for 2024. Midway through the year, this prediction holds true as conversations on hybrid work and return-to-office mandates remain prevalent. CHROs and their teams are on the frontlines of shaping organizational policies and guiding these discussions. Let’s explore the diverse perspectives in this dialogue and how CHROs can work to bring them into harmony.

 

Many C-Suite Executives Prefer a Return to Office

There are certainly compelling reasons why CEOs and other top leaders want people to return to the office. Many leaders fear the loss of social bonds, informal collaboration, and connected communication that physical proximity brings. Some research bears this out: Yale’s neuroscience research found digital tools are “an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions.” In other words, our brains are not wired to connect as well via remote tools like Zoom, and we wind up with worse communication and more exhaustion. These challenges of remote work are real and valid, and it’s important to acknowledge them.

 

The Harvard Business Review identifies three core areas driving the top-down return-to-office push:

  1. Scheduling: Leaders worry that employees aren’t adhering to the hybrid schedules or making bare minimum appearances before leaving.
  2. Culture: Leaders are concerned that a lack of in-person interaction mutes the ability to create a company culture, with remotely connected employees being less engaged and less able to see the overall impact of their work.
  3. Productivity: Without the ability to physically monitor employees at work, leaders may have concerns over whether they’re producing the expected output.

 

All three factors are likely to be top of mind for leaders, but culture might be the biggest. Analysts from MIT found that “collaboration technology was relatively poor for fostering high-quality interactions, especially among people who didn’t know each other well and had loose network connections. Under those circumstances, forming meaningful relationships that engender shared ways of working and deep commitment was especially difficult.” Remote work also reduced organizational loyalty and failed to build that strong sense of shared values and priorities that underpin culture as a whole.

 

Tools exist that can help monitor scheduling and productivity, but how can you measure a culture when everyone is scattered and “doing their own thing”?

 

Employees Are Reluctant to Return

 The hard reality is that a certain percentage of employees don’t want to return to the office – at least not full-time. A survey from Morning Consult found that 29% of workers prefer hybrid work now, and 23% prefer fully remote work, meaning just over half of employees prefer not to be fully in-office. Along with hybrid schedules, employees are looking for flexibility – things like four-day weeks or flex time, to better achieve the work-life balance they’ve come to value so highly.

 

Return-to-office mandates may, in fact, have a negative impact on retention and recruiting. A study from Unispace found that 42% of companies with return-to-office mandates experienced higher employee attrition than anticipated, and 29% of those companies report struggling with recruiting top talent. Requiring employees to be in the office for the sake of monitoring work can also negatively impact trust, which, in turn, depresses productivity: Slack found that employees who feel trusted by their employers have 2.1x better focus, double the productivity, and 4.3x higher satisfaction with work overall, while also being more likely to “go the extra mile.”

 

In light of this, pushing for a blanket return to office could backfire when it comes to retaining and attracting top talent. It’s essential for organizations (and universities) to carefully consider the overall economy and job market, as well as the company’s specific needs and goals, before implementing any change to scheduling policies. Today’s employees — especially the fast-growing Millennial and Gen Z cohorts — value work-life balance more than ever, and flexibility in scheduling is a big part of that. Many people who have jobs where they can currently work on a hybrid schedule may not be willing to leave for a job that requires full-time office work, even if there are other perks.

 

CHROs Must Seek a Balanced Solution

With all these competing demands and pressures, the CHRO ultimately becomes the fulcrum for everything, trying to balance everyone’s concerns. That can be a demanding position, but it is also one that is very powerful.

 

There are no easy answers. The solution for one organization may not work for another; the demands of one industry may require different levels of in-person presence than those of another. For any team, though, the CHRO can (and should) be there to educate everyone on the implications. They should be able to lead the conversation on questions such as:

 

  • What are our employees’ preferences, and how can we learn from that information?
  • What in-person demands exist in our industry and our roles?
  • What benefits can we offer to make in-office work more appealing?
  • How can we balance oversight of remote work with respecting employees’ autonomy?
  • Why do we have our scheduling policies, and do they still serve our needs?
  • How can we build culture and encourage innovation, whether in person or remotely?

 

Today’s CHROs have a direct opportunity to help bridge the gap between leaders and employees regarding work schedules and locations. Balance is the name of the game, as HR teams look for policies that can encourage work-life balance while also equally encouraging community-building and productivity. Blue Rock Search is here to provide expert insights and to help organizations find the HR and C-suite leaders they need to pinpoint the most effective strategy. Reach out to us for further conversations anytime!

 

About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.”  Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.

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