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Employee Wellbeing for Flexible Working: Hybrid Meetings and More

The writing of our latest book, Managing Workplace Health and Wellbeing During a Crisis: How to support staff in difficult times, has presented us with the opportunity to capture real-life experiences of leaders from many corners of the industry, during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this article, we explore how HR managers and occupational health professionals are addressing the health and wellbeing of their employees whilst wave after wave of the Covid-19 pandemic variants crash to the shores of their respective organizations. Drawing on insights from the book, we explore good or promising practices for maintaining a healthy workforce in these challenging times.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly forced the hand of organizations and put in train what is probably the largest social experiment in working life ever. The notion of home or remote working on such a scale has not been without challenge for almost all organizations. Aside from the obvious technological considerations, of which there are many, both employers and employees have had to think about working hours, taking sufficient breaks, using shared space, caring responsibilities, privacy, contact with line managers and a whole plethora of other wellbeing related topics.

As the world grapples with the latest variant of Covid-19, which at the time of writing is Omicron, we ask: what considerations should those charged with health and wellbeing bring to mind to ensure that their employees are given every opportunity to thrive in the workplace?

Up until recent weeks, we have seen a steady trend of employees returning to physical workspaces. The main contention has been how many and how often. It is clear that the remote work brought on by lockdowns has had some benefits too. For example, there were opportunities to cut down on long commuting times that extend the working day; these are often expensive in terms of fuel, transport fares or parking. Additionally, organizations could contribute to environmental goals in terms of reduced transport. Also in utility costs, for large, centralized office buildings, as an example. This meant that the somewhat clumsy previous experiments with hot-desking, remote and flexible working could be explored in earnest. But the latest wave signals that further workplace restrictions may be necessary; for, at the time of writing, government advice in the UK is to work from home wherever possible.

Therefore, we need to question what conditions need to be met to create such working environments, where some employees have returned to the office and some are working from home. How can organizations create a truly flexible remote offering that does not disadvantage parts of the workforce and creates opportunities to embrace modern working methods that technology enables? What the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work pondered were the conditions that could make this successful. In particular, some guidance was needed for the most crucial part of any flexible work environment: hybrid meetings.

The pandemic has witnessed a whole host of working solutions: Teams, Skype, Zoom and Cisco to name a few. But what is the optimal solution back at the workplace, where presumably more than one person gathers to participate? What is the etiquette, who chairs, how are papers introduced? There are many different aspects to be considered to ensure that the health and wellbeing of employees, as well as business needs, are met in a hybrid or remote working environment. While we will be taking a deeper look at hybrid meetings, these principles and considerations can also be applied to other areas of flexible working.

We suggest what follows to be seen as principles that aid health and wellbeing, based on what we know at this point in time. What was clear from the start was that for hybrid meetings to work there needs to be a lot more thought given to planning. As it is relatively easy on most work-based platforms to see who is free, there may be a temptation to use a convenience sample to hold a meeting. We have all seen a burgeoning use of impromptu meetings, or chats, initiated as one sees a colleague is free, often indicated by a green dot. Although this may be welcome on occasion, it might be that the parties are busy with other things or might be put back by the interruptions. A protocol is often useful for avoiding this and ensuring people get time away from their keyboards and screens. Therefore, time needs to be spent on planning, and especially on clarifying the purpose and intended outcome of the meeting. Although sometimes unpopular, in the interests of employee wellbeing, this means a clear and detailed agenda which sets out clearly the purpose and expected outcomes.

There is the further consideration of pre-reads or office-based resources that are not readily available for those in a home environment. Individual items, including any materials that participants, remote or otherwise, might need to have during the meeting, have to be catered for. Once more, the wellbeing of all participants is the consideration here. People cannot contribute if they do not have the opportunity to see and experience what others on the call are. Therefore, great care and pre-planning need to take place to avoid this wherever possible. It is the lack of the opportunity to contribute which will give rise to sub-optimal employee wellbeing.

In our book, the contributors wisely navigate their way around a host of emerging issues that challenged them during the pandemic, from the outset to a waypoint, as yet unclear. What they all have in common is the desire to maintain the health and wellbeing of their employees throughout. To achieve this, there is a recognition that engagement with employees is one of the cornerstones to success. This engagement is carried out in a number of ways, organization websites, group emails, traditional mailshots, group and one to ones. Therefore, it is clear that understanding and clarity are of paramount importance.

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