Of all the changes driven by COVID-19, the hybrid work model may be one of the most significant ones. In this arrangement, employees work remotely some days and in the office on others. Hybrid work has simplified the hiring process, attracted more valuable employees, and boosted employee retention for businesses around the world.

Despite the many successes of the hybrid model so far, some employers are still skeptical. But research shows there are plenty of benefits that are hard to ignore. The Conference Board performed a series of four studies between 2020 and 2022 that showed employees were more productive under a hybrid model. The changes were so beneficial after the shift towards hybrid work that 90% of employers surveyed in April 2022 plan on continuing the practice and allowing employees to continue working part-time. Two-thirds even permitted flexible work hours after seeing how well it all worked out!

This is a smart move. According to Gallup, when you require your employees to work fully on-site when they would prefer hybrid or remote working, they exhibit:

  • Significantly lower engagement
  • Significantly lower well-being
  • Significantly higher intent to leave
  • Significantly higher levels of burnout

Given this, however, it has become an imperative to find ways to engage workers who are not on site five days a week. Unfortunately, this can create challenges. Many employees have lost their sense of company culture. They’re simultaneously suffering from a combination of work burnout, pandemic fatigue, and other stressors. They have also been quitting in droves, ala “The Great Resignation,” according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey.

5 strategies for keeping your hybrid workforce engaged

So what should employers keep in mind when searching for replacements? Pay and bonus are most important. Sixty percent of employees claime these factors are at the top of their lists when searching for a job. Job security comes in second at 41%, and flexible schedules fall close behind, at 38%.

For small businesses in particular, every good worker is precious. Finding replacements is a costly—and dispiriting—exercise in today’s labor markets. And after suitable employees are found, how can you retain them? According to the Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, job security is a major incentive to stay put in their current position for 46% of employees. Pay and bonus come in second at 40%, with good co-worker relationships also holding a major influence at 36%.

Their conclusion? The most important factors to attracting—and retaining—worthwhile talent in today’s job market are high pay and job security.

According to a survey by Glint, 87% of employees want to work remotely at least half of the time. Only 13% want to work primarily in person. Here are five strategies for keeping your hybrid workforce fully engaged.

1. Forge hybrid policies based on employee productivity, not traditional business rules

It’s an exciting time. You’re taking part in one of the greatest work transformations in decades. You and other small business owners are truly shaping the workforce of the future. First, analyze the types of work best done together, as a team, onsite, and those that can be effectively done remotely. Ask your employees for input on this. Remember, your employees (mostly) did just fine despite the rapid emptying of the traditional office in March 2020. Indeed, most exhibited increased productivity, as shown by a two-year study by A Great Place to Work.

So, if possible given your type of business, ease up on rigid work hours and methodologies. Determine what success looks like now that a mandatory office attendance policy seems rather nonsensical. Let your employees schedule their days and decide upon their own way of working as they see fit. Let them figure out their own ways to collaborate. Set the ground rules—come up with metrics that ensure job obligations are met—and give them the freedom to shine.

2. Rethink online meetings

Online meetings don’t have to follow the same-old format, with endless PowerPoint decks and one person—usually the leader—droning on.

First, all the usual meeting best practices apply. Send out an agenda ahead of time. Don’t hold empty meetings for things that could be better done by email. Yes, remote work involves more frequent check-ins with your team. But there are other ways of doing it than putting a meeting on everyone’s calendar. Make meetings short and succinct. Stop at the appointed time. Respect that everyone has real jobs to do outside Zoom.

Secondly, you as the owner or manager of the small business should turn on your camera during online meetings. If you do it, others will follow. Meeting attendees will be less likely to surf the internet, check emails, or otherwise multitask if they know they are visible. Yes, “eye contact” isn’t real in a video conference. After all, you can never be sure if someone is directly looking at you. But gazing directly at the camera when you talk can give the appearance of it.

Also, rethink the PowerPoint. Although it can be good to have something visual for people to focus on, you don’t want to do slides simply because you always have. Think a little before just throwing anything up on the screen. Make it count. And mix it up a little. Most video conferencing platforms now have better tools for interaction, like being able to mix virtual whiteboards with break-out sessions with pre-recorded videos to share. Any good meeting—in person as well as online—is a bit of a performance. If you’re demanding people show up, you’d better make it worth their while.

Also, use veteran teachers’ tricks to keep your audience engaged. Assign different people to lead meetings. Give out homework for them to present to the rest of the team. Randomly call on attendees to keep them on their toes. Doing things this way requires a little more work, but it’s worth it.

3. Hold virtual water cooler chats

Engaging your workforce with regular meetings

This might sound like it contradicts advice to hold shorter and more focused meetings, but it’s not—not really—because it’s addressing a different need: the desire for human connection. According to a survey by Blueboard, almost 80% of employees desire a connection to their organization, and more importantly to their colleagues. And many HR experts believe this connection plays a key role in an organization’s overall success.

But how is that possible with a workforce that isn’t always together in one place? Indeed, just 4% of HR professionals strongly agree that they’ve addressed this challenge.

One way to do this is to schedule regular non-meetings. That is, times to get your team together without an agenda. Just to chat. Ask about their families and their cats. Let the conversation flow naturally.

This might feel awkward, at first, but you as the boss have to lead these with finesse. Be the first to break the ice. Make it clear you’re not asking people to “perform,” but are genuinely interested in what they have to say. And, of course, steer the conversation as skillfully as possible around topics that might cause discord, such as divisive politics. Encourage the conversations to continue beyond these scheduled sessions, and gradually your employees will feel more comfortable.

These don’t have to be long – perhaps 15 minutes. You don’t want them to be a burden when your team is busy. But they’re absolutely necessary to reinforce important aspects of your company culture.

4.  Consider innovative perks such as internet upgrades

Of course, for the last two pieces of advice to be actionable, you need your employees, on the days they’re working remotely, to have adequate bandwidth. It’s hard to be productive or engaged when there’s a lag or people freeze for seconds at a time. For videoconferencing and remote work to be done effectively, that means 3-to-5 Mpbs. You should offer to pay the difference between your employees’ current internet access and high-speed internet – preferably fiber, so they can be more productive with symmetrical upload and download speeds.

5.  Continually test how your team is feeling

When working remotely, check in with your team

This is essential if you want honest input from your employees. Perform frequent (preferably monthly) surveys of how your employees are doing, and inquire about any problems they are having. Many companies do this annually, and others as infrequently as every other year, according to the Achievers Workforce Institute Culture Report 2020. This is far too long to go without taking the pulse of workers. The same survey also found employees are more honest in surveys than with their managers. More than three-fourths (77%) of respondents are more likely to provide honest feedback in a survey than to their managers directly.

Such surveys are even more important in remote or hybrid work scenarios, when employees aren’t as visible. Things like body language and attitude are more opaque to small business owners or managers. You can make these surveys as granular as you like, even asking about specific events that have occurred and how well the company handled them.

6. Keep all workers on track to develop professionally

Keep your employees on track in their careers

This is critical. Remote workers have always been warned that they risk getting left behind in their careers. One recent survey found 45% of remote workers think it will hurt their chances of advancement to not be in the office every day. You, as the owner and leader, need to work hard to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Additionally, offer training and education opportunities to all workers. At this point, most reputable professional development courses can be accessed online. You can also consider offering live training as a way of promoting interactions and engagement among attendees. Such resources can be offered simultaneously to in-person and on-line employees. And a skilled instructor should be able to manage the mixed environment to facilitate collaboration and discussion.

Although promoting the careers of your workers might not be high on your priority list right now, you might consider putting in the work to make this possible or you could lose employees who feel stuck. After all, according to a Glint survey, employees claimed the opportunities to learn and grow were the top drivers for a great work culture.

As you move to a new way of working…

Developing a hybrid work strategy that engages employees involves an ongoing process of asking questions, trying new things, making mistakes, and adapting. Transitioning to a hybrid workforce requires a steep learning curve for many small businesses, but by following these and other best practices, it’s achievable.