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opinion

The summer of 2021 will be known for many things that remind us of the summer of 2019. Depending on where you live, masks are becoming a thing of the past, as are Plexiglas boards in restaurants and stores, as well as counting how many guests you can have indoors and out. The summer of 2021 may also be known as the last summer where you can work from your patio or garden at your home, cottage or wherever you may be in the summertime.

Going into the fall of 2021, many organizations are facing the reality that employees want the option to work from home. Some employers are welcoming the idea. It is giving them a chance to build a positive workplace culture as well as possibly reducing their physical-space needs – which can benefit the company’s bottom line and also the environment, through reduced commuting.

All this leaves employers with questions of how to manage this type of blended, or hybrid, workplace. What are the rules, policies and procedures that need to be in place in order to make this work, and what expectations will be needed for employees to make sure they do not abuse these new work arrangements?

HR professionals will be the first to tell you that the rules are there for the 5 per cent of people who need them, because common sense is just not common enough. The rest of us just want to get on with our work and lives in whatever way makes us feel the most engaged and productive. When we were ordered to work from home, we rose to the challenge, mostly free of constricting rules and policies. Now, many employers feel the need to impose more stringent rules on employees as they head back to the office.

For every system aimed at helping or supporting people, there will be those who abuse it. The numbers are usually small, yet companies believe they need rules for everyone in order to ensure no one abuses the system. The reality is that those that flout policies will continue to do so, regardless of what safeguards are put into place.

An example that comes to mind is drinking alcohol in city parks. Last summer, I went to Penticton, B.C., where as a trial, alcohol was permitted on the beach up until 8 p.m. – with no additional rules involved. All I saw were people enjoying the beach.

Over in Calgary, where alcohol in parks is being allowed but only at certain tables in certain parks, with two-hour time limits for reservations, as well as (obvious) rules surrounding drinking and driving, no public intoxication, etc. The list goes on, with the underlying message being: “We’re watching you.” Which scenario makes you feel more trusted?

Recently, a colleague of mine told me that she had two non-negotiable guidelines for her staff while working from home during the pandemic:

1. Do not turn on your camera if you do not want to. Many people are – and rightfully so – protective of their privacy and should not have to show everyone where they live, or what they look like when they are working from home.

2. Do not apologize for chaos. Kids screaming, dogs barking or cats walking in front of the monitor is just the reality of life in our current situation – and life is not to be apologized for. If you needed to take a moment to settle something, she said, do it and come back. Anyone (like me) who has a 15-year-old daughter will tell you that a crisis for her is a crisis for the whole family (or the entire neighbourhood, as my client pointed out), and must be dealt with right away.

These were welcome “rules,” giving employees the freedom to be themselves without fear of judgment.

Coming back to the office this fall should be liberating, not restricting. Although many of us are tired of working exclusively from home, we can all agree it does have its benefits and that the technology that enables it is largely effective.

Returning to the office environment, we’ll see some of the clear advantages of being in closer proximity: being able to build workplace culture more systematically and supporting more informal collaboration (nothing yet beats the office coffee break or lunchroom for that). But we also should have done away with the false paradigm that working from home reduces productivity or lessens accountability.

My colleague’s ground rules, I believe, should be the only ones that apply to the hybrid back-to-work approach. Anything more complicated will do nothing but tell your employees you do not trust them.

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist and leadership coach based in Calgary

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