We are now more than a year since major news organizations first began sounding the alarm for the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and looking back on articles from that time can be quite jarring. In mid-March of 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf gave a speech asking for “two weeks to flatten the curve”. That optimism was echoed in American workplaces, with expectations of employees needing to work from home for perhaps a few short months. Over a year later, and companies are only now announcing plans to bring employees back into their physical workplaces. As we watched the pandemic stretch from weeks into months, and from months to years, it became evident that the changes brought about in the business world were here to stay.
A long year of uncertainty and upheaval has left many organizations without a sense of clarity regarding what their employees want and need.
Perhaps the most consequential topic of conversation and debate within the workplace going forward will revolve around how to manage the changing expectations and demands of employees. The general trend is toward a growing number of options for handling schedules, workplace flexibility, and benefits. If the changes brought about by the pandemic were short lived, one might expect a relatively quick and graceful return to normal routines and procedures. We all would have happily returned to our physical workplaces and continued with business as usual.
That obviously is not what happened. It took many of us months to become acclimated to remote work, and enough time has gone by now that these changes are quickly becoming a durable part of the modern world. After more than a full year, many of us have become quite accustomed to working from home, and some have even made drastic changes to their lifestyles and are now dependent upon the flexibility of these new work arrangements. Because of this, it is impractical, perhaps untenable, for us to expect the workplace to return to pre-pandemic norms.
Many organizations are already realizing this, marking an incredible transformation in the perception of remote and hybrid workforces. In the early stages of the pandemic, very few organizations would have taken seriously the notion that these changes would become permanent. Only a small percentage of companies were utilizing remote work at scale, but the experiment of the last year has proven its feasibility, and now there really is no going back.
This subject is complex and multi-faceted, but the primary concern on most people’s minds is scheduling. Of course, not every organization is going to make remote work the norm going forward, but it will likely remain an option in the vast majority of them even after physical workplaces reopen. Many of the world’s largest companies have already announced plans to embrace remote work as at least part of their plans going forward, such as Microsoft, Spotify, Dropbox, and Uber, among others. It is not uncommon to hear of companies that have decided to end their leases and get rid of their physical offices altogether. This trend has spawned office vacancy crises in major cities throughout the US and, considering that more than half of employees currently working remotely would like to continue to do so, this is not expected to be a short-lived phenomenon. If organizations want to remain competitive in the labor market and retain their talented employees, they need to embrace the hybrid workforce transformation.
Remote work is not for everyone, however, and it is important to keep in mind that many are eager to return to their physical workplaces. Pandemic related safety measures are relaxing in many parts of the country, but where they remain in place organizations are exploring creative strategies to keep occupancy to recommended maximums. Staggered schedules and compressed workweeks have emerged as popular approaches because they allow employees to return to the workplace if they wish by rotating who is coming in at various times. Flextime, a strategy that allows employees to work at the times that work best for them, is another option to keep an eye on as it is likely to be in high demand as physical offices and workplaces reopen.
Despite their hesitation, organizations are realizing that strategies like flextime and remote work come with tangible benefits, such as increased employee productivity, retention, and engagement.
Organizational Challenges Incoming
It is no secret that at the top of the list of any business’s concerns is ensuring that the policies they follow protect and benefit their bottom line, and this topic is no different. It simply is not feasible to expect every company to accommodate 100% of their employees working remotely going forward, but expectations have changed, and the smart move will be to try to meet those expectations where possible.
Many of the changes we have seen in easily adapted work like IT and Human Resources are generally here to stay, as are video conferencing tools like Zoom and Skype. We should also expect to see new tools emerge to better meet the needs of the new hybrid workforce. Solving the major pain points of remote work, like communication and organization, will be a new frontier in software development going forward. Because of these changes, companies are likely to start aggressively seeking out management and staff that have experience working with distributed teams.
As the pendulum swings in the direction of remote work, we should all be wary of a potential pitfall: overcompensation. The desire to be at the leading edge of this transition is understandable, but we currently only have a year of data to verify the feasibility of hybrid workforces, and the practicality of it is likely to vary widely from organization to organization. Many will be drawn to the promise of lower expenses and reduced complexity, but the results are sure to be mixed.
Organizations should be leery of changing too much too quickly despite the pressures that they are likely to face. The first order of business should be to get those who want to work in a physical workplace and those who want to continue to work remotely set up to do so as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is important to let the dust settle and a sense of normalcy to return before any further drastic changes are made. Given where much of the country remains regarding COVID-19 precautions, simply reopening workplaces to any degree is going to be a significant enough challenge already.
Many employees will prefer to continue working from home, but that does not mean that it should become the new standard just yet. The importance of the social component of life and work is not to be underestimated, as we have seen over the last year, so it comes as no surprise that many of us yearn to see their coworkers and customers in person again.
As companies make decisions about how to handle the emergence of remote work, the key will be for them to focus on providing options to their employees, not requirements. Regardless of what they decide, it is important that their decisions are calculated and deliberate. Most organizations spent the last year simply trying to ride the wave and not drown amid the chaos – leaving aside, of course, the companies that were already working remotely before the pandemic.
Now that the experiment has been run and the results are coming in, everyone is starting to look toward the future. This should be considered a great opportunity to evaluate the success and failures of what was tried and make decisions based on those results through the lens of what is best for that particular organization going forward. We are no longer improvising on the fly. Companies are going to start learning from what has happened and it is the companies that are deliberate about their decisions regarding remote work and carefully develop their plans that will be most competitive.
The first step in making such a plan should be to collect and analyze as much data as possible from your employees about their interests and expectations regarding remote work. This could take the form of interviews, group discussions, company-wide surveys, one-on-one conversations, or some combination of these options. Regardless of the method, management needs to get a scope on what their employees want before they will be able to assess what is feasible to offer them.
Tough compromises are almost inevitable because, in most situations, neither the employer nor the employee is going to come away with everything that they want. Consider more complex situations, like the companies that will not be able to offer the same remote work options to all their employees because of differences in the type of work that they do. Ford recently offered 86,000 of their employees the option to continue working from home permanently, but this is not possible for its 100,000 plus factory workers. The cost of workforce infighting can be substantial, so to prevent conflict, organizations may consider offering other benefits to the employees who work in roles that cannot be adapted to remote work. Whatever they do, it is imperative that they reaffirm the importance of those workers.
Taking all of this into consideration is going to be overwhelming for a lot of organizations, especially small businesses. Management should remind themselves that they are not going to be able to please everyone. All that can be reasonably expected is that they make good-faith efforts to meet the needs of as many of their employees as possible.
The knock-on effects from the pandemic, such as the emergence of remote work, have forced organizations and employees to completely re-evaluate their priorities and needs. Tough decisions are going to be made and, in many cases, both employers and employees are going to have to look elsewhere to have those needs met. Disruptions like this are undoubtedly stressful, but if the situation is managed strategically, at the end of the day we might all be better off.