Creating the right culture and climate can drive engagement, productivity and longevity.
In May, Business Insider reported that a number of major companies had started to require employees to return to the physical workplace. This list included Amazon, Apple, Citigroup, Disney, Goldman Sachs, Google and IBM.
Requiring employees to return to the office is often seen as a rather heavy-handed approach—and in many cases, it isn’t sitting well with employees. It’s probably not surprising that employees’ experiences with remote and hybrid work during the pandemic gave them a taste for freedom and flexibility that many are loathe to give up. Employers demanding that employees return to the workplace may find themselves struggling to retain or attract employees.
With credit unions’ strong commitment to both employees and members, most aren’t taking such a heavy-handed approach. Instead, they’re hoping to strike the right balance between face time and the flexibility that remote or hybrid work can bring—and that many employees have come to demand.
It’s not easy and, unless done well, could actually create an environment that dismays rather than delights employees.
A Rise in Employee Demand for Freedom and Flexibility
CUES member Lori Thompson, CCE, chief culture officer at Skyla Credit Union in Charlotte, North Carolina, acknowledges that remote work became a necessity during the pandemic. The ability to have employees working remotely, she says, “kept our ‘doors’ open, figuratively. Teams were implemented for branch employees, and they alternated workdays for a … time just to limit exposure to each other.”
Those experiences taught both employees and credit union managers and leaders that despite what they may have believed prior to the pandemic, remote work can work in many cases.
“Remote and hybrid work are really taking hold in the workforce,” says Lesley Sears, VP/consulting with CUES in Madison, Wisconsin. “The pandemic has stirred up—in a good way—a desire for a good work-life balance.”
Bradford Bell, Ph.D., agrees. “I think everybody thought it went really well during the pandemic when people were largely kind of self-contained. Now, they’re really trying to figure out how to make this work most effectively both for the organization and for employees themselves.” Bell is the William J. Conaty professor in strategic human resources and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University’s ILR School in Ithaca, New York.
Some companies can operate effectively in an entirely remote environment. Credit unions, of course, can’t. Some employees need to be physically present to serve members who prefer to do business through local branches. While some credit unions have embraced remote work to a significant extent, allowing employees to work remotely or adopting a hybrid work model, it is still uncommon to find credit unions—or other financial institutions—that operate entirely without physical branches or on-site operations.
“There’s kind of a recalibration happening as organizations figure out what type of model is really the best for them,” Bell says. That recalibration really needs to take into account employees’ concerns and preferences.
As she consults with credit unions, Sears says, she encounters leaders who want to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic. That, she predicts, is going to be difficult if not impossible for them to do.
“That’s gone. It’s not coming back,” she says. They have to “stop living in fantasyland and really dig into what your credit union can do to establish a healthy hybrid culture.”
An important part of creating that culture is establishing a culture that can help everyone successfully navigate the “new normal” of remote or hybrid work.
The Need for Norms
Workplace norms are the unwritten rules and expectations that guide behavior, interactions and practices within a specific work environment. The article “Write Down Your Team’s Unwritten Rules” from HBR suggests it might even be worthwhile to write them down. Norms often develop organically within a workplace and shape the culture and atmosphere of the organization. They can encompass everything from communication styles to dress code, punctuality, collaboration, decision-making processes, work-life balance and adherence to company values.
Norms provide a framework for employees to understand what is considered acceptable or appropriate behavior in the workplace. They contribute to creating a cohesive and harmonious work environment, promoting consistency, cooperation and productivity. Norms can influence how employees interact with one another, how conflicts are resolved and how tasks are approached.
Gartner has indicated that the lack of established norms for hybrid work can lead to an increased likelihood of turnover. In fact, the research group finds that in settings without established norms, it’s 12% more likely that employees will leave.
For many employers, managing a remote or hybrid workforce is still relatively new and ways to manage obstacles, such as those described in this HBR article, are still being developed. Too often those not on site are not given the same amount of attention, or the same access to company leaders, resources—and each other. Being more mindful of hybrid work norms, as Gartner suggests, can have an impact on retention which, even in an era marked by massive reductions in force at some organizations, remains a top priority for employers, including credit unions.
Establishing a healthy, shared culture around hybrid and remote work norms, Sears says, is a must. Not having remote work as an option, she says, will mostly likely lead to attrition and make it hard to find employees. Trust, she says, is foundational. That requires communication and buy-in. Employees need to be involved in creating the norms that they will be expected to adhere to.
Remote or Hybrid Work Norms
Norms will vary depending on each credit union’s specific needs and work dynamics and should be tailored to align with their unique circumstances. Here, though, are some typical areas where norms might be developed for remote or hybrid as well as in-person work.
- Communication expectations. Guidelines for communication channels, response times and preferred methods (e.g., email, video calls, instant messaging) to ensure effective collaboration and minimize delays.
- Availability and core working hours. The times when employees are expected to be accessible and available for meetings or synchronous collaboration.
- Accountability and deliverables. Clear expectations regarding deliverables, deadlines and quality of work.
- Virtual meeting etiquette. Guidelines for such things as muting microphones when not speaking, using video when appropriate, respecting meeting agendas and time limits, and actively participating in discussions.
- Documentation and knowledge-sharing. The practice of documenting important information, decisions, and shared resources to ensure accessibility and transparency across remote team members.
- Flexibility and work-life balance. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance by respecting personal boundaries, setting realistic workload expectations and allowing flexibility in work schedules to accommodate individual needs.
- Collaboration and team-building. Fostering opportunities for virtual team-building activities, periodic check-ins and cross-functional collaboration to maintain a sense of camaraderie and connectedness among remote and hybrid team members.
- Technology and equipment. Guidelines for the use of technology tools, software and equipment necessary for remote work.
- Data security and confidentiality. Communicating the importance of data security, confidentiality and adherence to privacy policies in remote work settings. Educating employees on best practices for safeguarding sensitive information.
- Feedback and performance evaluation. Procedures for regular feedback, performance evaluations and professional development opportunities in a hybrid or remote work environment. Provide clear channels for employees to seek guidance and address concerns.
Creating Buy-in and Consensus
In credit unions, says Sears, the workforce can be broken down into three levels of stakeholders—the leaders, the managers and the individual contributors. With remote work, she says, trust must flow through all of these levels. “Leaders have to trust managers, who have to trust individual contributors,” she says. “And individual contributors need to trust managers, who need to trust leaders.”
All three groups, says Sears, need to be engaged in creating work norms and need to feel like they have a voice. It’s not something that senior leaders can simply proclaim. In addition, she notes, decisions should be based on data to help determine whether to keep the norms that have been established or to change them. “In many organizations, we create norms and then we’re married to them forever. That can be just as unhealthy as no norms.”
It’s important, says Sears, “to be very strategic about what you’re setting up, how you’re setting it up, and how you’re communicating.” Importantly, establishing norms isn’t a “set it and forget it” process. It requires, according to Sears, “ongoing and continuous improvement and keeping an eye on current processes and how they’re working or not working.” It’s important to be humble enough to acknowledge when something hasn’t worked and take a step back to gather input about what might work better.
Buy-in also requires data, Sears says, to demonstrate that hybrid and remote arrangements are working. Research suggests that productivity can go up as much as 10% to 15% when employees are working from home.
Sears suggests that credit unions should establish their own metrics so they can monitor performance. Those metrics will vary depending on the setting and type of work being done but might be such things as the number of calls handled by call center staff, for instance.
She recommends including employees in the discussion, asking them how their productivity could be measured. She says she has participated in hundreds of brainstorming sessions with credit union staff and has never walked out without “a ton of ideas.”
Another key to ensuring that hybrid work models work: ensuring that supervisors and managers are prepared to lead in this type of work environment. Not all are. Despite the fact that many were forced into learning on their feet during the pandemic, there are still opportunities to formalize training and education around managing in a hybrid work environment.
As Bell notes, managers have to be “much more purposeful and systematic” when managing remote staff, especially when it comes to communication. They also need to be “much more agile and adaptive,” he says.
Managing Sticky Issues With Hybrid Work
Communication is a key to making hybrid or remote work situations work well. That’s also true in on-site work settings, but as Bell points out, remote settings require more proactive thought and purpose to ensure that communication is occurring and remote staff aren’t feeling out of the loop.
Managers must also be prepared to handle potentially thorny situations that can emerge, such as sensitivities between employees with jobs that can’t be done remotely (tellers, for instance) and those who are able to work from home one or more days a week.
“There is ‘fairness’ component to remote work or maybe it could be called ‘work envy,’” Thompson says. At Skyla CU, she says, the majority of non-member-facing employees have the option to work a hybrid schedule. “The member-facing staff see this as a definite advantage, which attributes to some of the turnover in our branches,” she says. “Employees want the flexibility and so it has become increasingly difficult to retain front line staff. They apply for back office positions—not for career development—but for the option of working from home.”
To address the issue at Skyla CU, “we have implemented lucrative incentive plans for branch staff to boost retention and it has definitely helped,” Thompson says. “The back-office positions don’t offer the same monetary incentive opportunities.”
Incentives are important to retain branch employees. “It’s difficult enough to compete with external opportunities and internal opportunities can be as enticing to employees, especially with the option of a hybrid schedule,” she adds.
A top initiative at Skyla CU is “to build an amazing culture,” Thompson says. She admits that is “difficult to do with so many employees working remotely.”
Bell notes that there are really no easy answers or clear solutions to these issues and points out that being prepared to explain the “why” behind decisions about who can and can’t work from home is important. “I think where it really bubbles up and becomes a problem is when employees think it’s unfair—when they don’t see the rationale or logic for it.”
That certainly comes into play when requiring employees to come into the office after they’ve worked successfully from home during the pandemic, Bell says.
Communication and trust also come into play here. Leaders need to be open to employees’ feedback and concerns and willing to address situations that emerge. It’s also important to be clear that things may change.
“As we put these structures into place as practices, we need to be willing to evaluate and adjust them,” Bell says. “There are going to be pain points that need to be fixed.”
Thompson notes that Skyla CU is making some adjustments to the remote work framework based on experience. “Over the course of the last few years,” she says, “we have allowed each department to determine the remote schedules for their teams. Later this year, we will begin requiring remote employees to be in the office a minimum of three days per week.” She acknowledges that this will be an adjustment for some, but says, “we believe that it is needed to promote employee engagement and an inclusive, reenergized environment—this hybrid schedule creates intentional flexibility while fostering team cohesiveness.”
As changes need to be made, Thompson recommends maintaining “some level of consistency in hybrid schedules across the organization” and providing “specific guidelines in a written policy.” This, she says, “would have helped make our upcoming transition less disruptive.”
There is no definitive playbook for remote work at this point, making agility and flexibility crucial for navigating its challenges. Open minds, open communication and a climate of trust—along with shared norms—can help credit unions carefully navigate this new terrain and the new options it brings.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a writer and human resource management and marketing communication consultant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. She is the author of The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement (Adams Media, 2014) and Human Resource Essentials (SHRM, 2010).