Business leaders have never faced a challenge like this before. Even as uncertainty continues to define our battle with COVID-19, many business organizations are devising back-to-work strategies. For some, it will mean a full return to in-person, in-office work; for others, a hybrid approach split between home and formal office. A few companies have even decided that remote work – widely embraced as a pandemic mitigation strategy – will serve as the new normal.
Whatever the strategy, business leaders must be very deliberate in planning. Many of the people who were forced out of familiar office environments to work from home are severely stressed, some with the experience of working from home, others about the prospects of returning to the office. A poorly devised and badly implemented back-to-work strategy could have a devastating effect on people. Where should employers start when devising their back-to-work plans, and what issues should be taken into consideration?
Unfortunately, it appears leaders and employees are reading off different song sheets when it comes to devising back-to-work strategies. That was certainly the findings in Resetting Normal: Defining a New Era of Work, a ground-breaking survey conducted by The Adecco Group. In early 2021, an online survey reached 14,800 white collar workers between the ages of 18 and 60, spread across 25 countries. The respondents all had desk-based jobs, worked at least 20 hours a week and were required to work remotely during the pandemic. Our findings reveal both the great seismic shift that has been triggered by the pandemic and the move to remote work, and the failure of many organizations to meet the revised expectations of their employees.
A fierce and growing appetite for flexibility at work
One of the inevitable consequences of remote work was the enhanced control over the workday. Gone were the days of punching a clock; in the pandemic era, people quickly ditched commutes and embraced more flexible schedules that allowed them to start, finish and stagger work hours like never before. And for the most part, employees like the experience and believe it is better overall for their productivity.
The survey found an impressive 80 percent of respondents across all organizational levels – senior leaders, frontline managers, and non-managers – want to maintain some of the flexibility they won during the pandemic. And 70 percent of respondents want their work to be judged less on hours being worked, and more on the outcomes of their work.
Overall, respondents supported the idea that remote work improved productivity: 40 percent said their output improved and another 42 percent said it remained about the same. Only 18 percent said productivity suffered from remote work.
Failure to live up to the ideal of work-life balance
It appears that expressing support for greater flexibility is not necessarily translating into change. mA more flexible working schedule is an essential component in work life balance, something that was a growing priority for top talent before the pandemic. Many working people achieved greater balance when remote work was thrust upon them.
Still, there is a sense among survey respondents that employers are not necessarily embracing that flexibility and balance. Seven in 10 senior leaders believe they have met or exceeded expectations on supporting work-life balance. However, only 54 percent of front-line managers believe expectations have been met or exceeded, and that drops to 42 percent for non-managers.
The future of work is not an either (at home) or (at the office) scenario
Greater flexibility will increasingly mean being able to split time between the traditional and home offices, at the discretion of employees. More than half of all respondents (53%) want a hybrid working arrangement that allows them to pick and choose days to be at home or in the office. Interestingly, respondents with children wanted to spend more time in the office, and younger generations want more time in a traditional office.
However, perhaps as an expression of the inability to meet expectations on work-life balance, respondents were also somewhat skeptical that the kind of hybrid working arrangements they want will come to fruition. While a slim majority want to split time between home and office, 61 percent of respondents expect their employers to make them spend more time overall in the office.
Whatever the scenario, anxiety is running high
Uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic and its variants is causing a lot of organizations to hedge their bets on a return-to-work plan. Those delays – and a lack of detail about how much time people are going to be asked to spend in the office – are starting to take a toll on employees.
Half of all respondents are anxious about returning to work. And there is a pronounced difference on this issue between men and women. Nearly half of all women, and just over a third of all men, are anxious about spending any time back in the office. However, both men and women are in synch on one issue: less than half of all respondents, regardless of gender, want to return to the office.
The disconnect between senior leaders and the people they lead is related to many issues surrounding return-to-work planning. These issues are significant and potentially destructive. People have dealt with a lot of change in the last 18 months and a poor effort in designing return-to-work plans or imposing a solution that runs against the grain of employee opinion, could handicap human capital strategy for years to come.
The key will be to establish a set of principles – guardrails if you like – that can help inform back-to-work planning and execution. There are so many different issues to consider when plotting a return to the office, either full-time or adopting a hybrid approach. Who should come back first? How many days do you need people in the office to be effective, if at all? Will those employees who are permitted to continue working in full remote mode require some sort of new or innovative supervision? Should my organization maintain a head office, or start devolving the bricks-and-mortar structure in favor of something more dispersed? Overall, flexibility is the key to this endeavor, particularly over the next six to nine months as the world watches closely to see if global vaccine initiatives have their desired effects. Flexibility is also the order of the day when designing back-to-work plans for employees working in different regions or countries; as our survey showed, attitudes about returning to the office and the performance of leaders varies widely from country to country. Those data points scream out for a strategy that considers local culture.
Most importantly, do not assume that the plan you put in place now is the end of this process. There must be constant evaluation and reassessment to ensure that you are getting the desired outcomes. If we’ve learned anything in the last 18 months, it is that conditions change on an almost weekly basis. Preparing now means you can weather unanticipated changes without disrupting operations.
Flexibility. Preparation. Clarity. These are not only the features an effective back-to-work strategy, but they are also the hallmarks of a future-proofed human capital strategy that can sustain you for years beyond the pandemic.