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See you IRL: CIRA’s unique approach to working hybrid

By Sanita Alias
Vice-president, People, Culture & Brand

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered major shifts to how we approach work and the idea of the workplace. In the initial days of the pandemic, workplaces made the shift to remote work and spoke of the days when the world would return to “normal”. Yet as the pandemic slogged on, a new normal emerged—and the mass adoption of hybrid work models began. As organizations around the world consider how the changes brought on by the pandemic translate to their workplaces, I wanted to give you some insight into why CIRA chose a hybrid approach, along with advice for business leaders looking to do the same.

CIRA’s unique approach to hybrid work

While CIRA successfully continued serving Canadians remotely during the pandemic, our goal has always been to return to the office in some capacity. This is based, in part, on feedback from employees indicating feeling a loss of a connection to their teams and the wider organization. Equally, however, it was important that we did not lose sight of the pros of remote work and how it allowed for flexibility to remain the standard at CIRA. And so, CIRA’s “IRL days” (a play on the early internet chatroom abbreviation ‘in real life’) was conceived.

While many organizations who’ve adopted a hybrid work model are mandating employees come in for a specific number of set days per week, CIRA is taking a different approach. CIRA employees are to visit the office for seven “IRL days” a month to enable collaboration, creativity and CIRA-wide team building. To create flexibility, our team’s seven IRL days can be used throughout the month or all at once. Our goal is to provide more options for individuals to choose the work environment that suits them best.

The internet is global—let’s take advantage

In the vein of flexibility, we wanted employees to take advantage of the internet’s global reach. As the world slowly opens back up, we decided now was the time to introduce a new perk, “Discover Days”. Employees at CIRA have the unique opportunity to work from (almost!) anywhere in the world for up to four weeks—these dates can be used consecutively or divvied up between as many destinations as the individual chooses. The focus is on personal development and growth. Employees are encouraged to connect with other cultures and utilize the power of the internet to thrive in a new destination. Discover Days can be tacked on to vacation and renews every fiscal year. It’s a unique privilege that gives employees the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in another culture and learn valuable knowledge that they can then bring back to the office upon their return.

Let’s get together and feel good

IRL days and Discover Days are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unique offerings available at CIRA. CIRA looks at health and wellness holistically, meaning we support both the mental and physical health of our employees. At the start of the pandemic, CIRA launched a variety of benefits that will remain the standard as we turn to hybrid work. In addition to our top-of-class benefits package, we prioritized our employees’ health and wellness as they eased into remote work with things like our one-time work from home reimbursement, our lifted cap on sick days and our increased coverage for mental health practitioners and more.

Throughout the pandemic, CIRA remained connected remotely. Virtual murder mystery events, trivia nights and meal deliveries were all par for the course. We moved our in-person weekly optional fitness classes to a virtual setting to keep everyone active and engaged. But online interactions can’t replace authentic, real life moments as there is no substitute for genuine human connection. While the weekly online chats and virtual team-building activities had their perks, as we go hybrid, I know that IRL days will allow for more natural conversations and proverbial water-cooler chats to take place. About 30% of our team is new since the start of the pandemic, and while I’m not saying it’s impossible to form real relationships online—trust me, CIRA understands the power of the internet—it’s easier to bond with colleagues with a mix of IRL and remote work.

Advice for organizations looking to implement a hybrid model

Market research is always a good first step. Cherry pick ideas that would foster the best work environment for you and your team. What works for one organization may not work for yours, so remember to tailor your approach and tactics to the needs of your organization and employees.

I’m a firm believer that you should never create a policy with the lowest common denominator in mind. We hire great people, let’s trust them. The goal of policies is to enable our employees to do their best work. There may be people who take advantage of a system, but don’t let this fear hold you back from implementing flexible measures that could truly benefit the talented individuals who make your organization tick.

Lastly, don’t expect perfection right off the bat. Not everyone will always be happy, it’s a fact of life. There will be hiccups—bumps in the road that need to be addressed. Ideally, no organization’s hybrid model will ever be set in stone. I know ours won’t be. We will continue to take pulse checks and ensure that our workplace environment best suits our team’s needs. The fundamental requirement for an effective hybrid model is your ability to continuously adapt and respond to feedback. This will enable a positive culture fostered on candor and connection.

About the author
Sanita Alias

Sanita Alias is the vice-president of people, culture, and brand at CIRA, where she ensures the organization is living its values internally and communicating them externally. Sanita is a trusted HR business leader with a focus on developing talent and inspiring change.