The coronavirus pandemic has given scores of employees their first taste of remote work on a regular basis.
And many of them have decided they like it.
Take a recent Gallup poll, for example, which found nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic saying they would like to continue doing so in the future.
Overall, 35% of those who have worked remotely said they would simply prefer it going forward, while 30% said they would like to continue working away from the office because of their coronavirus-related concerns.
It’s still impossible to say when COVID-19 will be safely in the rearview. But many employers have already begun to envision a post-pandemic workplace that offers employees more long-term remote work options, but doesn’t forsake face time at the office altogether.
Consider a recent PwC survey of 133 executives and 1,200 office workers. Conducted in November and December 2020, the poll finds the majority of companies are “heading toward a hybrid work model where a large number of office employees rotate in and out of offices configured for shared spaces.”
The study sees no consensus, however, in terms of how much time employees should be working at home and how often they should be coming into the office.
For example, 55% of the employees surveyed said they would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week once pandemic concerns subside.
Most executives, meanwhile, said they expect their organizations to continue offering remote work options beyond the pandemic, but 68% of them said the average employee should be in the office at least three days a week in order to maintain “a distinct company culture.”
So how does a given company strike the right balance of work-from-home and in-office options for its particular workforce?
“Like most decisions going forward, the balance of remote versus in-office work comes down to aligning with specific company cultural values that employees can relate to,” said Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers.
Company leadership has a host of factors to consider in finding the sweet spot, she said.
“Leaders must ask, ‘How do I show my employees the benefits of coming into the office, in alignment with strengthening the culture? Are there set days when employees are required to come in, or can we allow for more flexibility? How can we instill a more distinct culture even before we return to the office?
These questions, and the answers they uncover, “are not one size fits all,” said Baumgartner, “as it’s critical that companies develop a plan that is aligned with both their strategy and their company values.”
Ravin Jesuthasan, global leader for transformation services at Mercer, agrees that a company should be careful “not to view the workforce or work as homogenous” as it weighs hybrid work models.
“The opportunities for remote work are often clouded by work being viewed as synonymous with jobs, and that leads to blanket rules like the ones highlighted by this PwC research,” he said. “When organizations get beyond the job to the component activities, they see opportunities for flexibility that might not be immediately obvious.”
For instance, a lab technician at a pharmaceutical company might not appear to be a viable candidate for remote work. But a thorough analysis of the role could find a number of tasks that did not depend on a specific location or equipment, such as independent analysis of lab results or reviewing research, Jesuthasan said.
“Organizations need to be led by the work as they seek to find the right balance of in-person versus remote work,” he said.
The company must also understand a given position’s component activities — do they require synchronous collaboration versus being performed independently? Are they location- or equipment-specific versus being able to be performed anywhere? — and then make decisions with the employee as to what flexible work options make the most sense for them.”
In the minds of some employees who have gotten used to remote work in recent months, the most sensible, or at least most preferable, option is to stay away from the office as much as possible going forward. The organization also needs to address the concerns of these workers who are hesitant to be in the office on a frequent basis, or at all.
“When we’re able to safely return to the office, even if it’s only part-time, that shift will be an adjustment for many employees,” Baumgartner said. “It’s critical that leaders are making decisions regarding the return to work with employees’ needs in mind, if they hope to attract and retain talent.”
The best way to get a grasp on employee concerns, she said, is simply to listen, whether it’s by conducting employee surveys or providing workers with other forums to share their thoughts on returning to a shared workspace.
“Gathering honest feedback is a critical step in developing strategies that speak to employee needs and foster trust and transparency within the organization.”
Ultimately, some organizations might rely on incentives, in some form, to help coax hesitant workers back to the office.
What those incentives look like will differ from company to company, said Baumgartner.
For instance, while some might require employees to be back in the office three days a week, the organization might increase flexibility in terms of the amount of time spent in the office on those days.
A company could also provide transportation reimbursement to cover the costs that employees have not had to pay since the pandemic began. Or, companies might offer more child care support or extended paid family leave to working parents who are required to return to in-person work in some capacity.
Leadership must keep in mind that employees’ feelings and needs are subject to change, added Baumgartner.
“As leaders continue to navigate the remainder of the pandemic, and we see a return to a semblance of normalcy, employee sentiment may change quickly, and leaders need to be aware of how the current climate is impacting employee needs,” she said.
“Once leaders identify employee reservations or concerns about returning to the office, it will be much easier to proactively and effectively address them.”
About the Author
Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan.