Are You Ready to Navigate the New Normal?
With the increased availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and roughly 25% of Americans already vaccinated, the question among corporate leadership is, “When should we send employees back to the office?” A vaccinated workforce doesn’t necessarily mean employees are able to return to the office. For many employees, the availability of childcare and whether schools are open drives their ability to go to the office. President Biden reports his administration is on track to keep a promise he made to the nation’s parents and caregivers: to reopen the majority of elementary and middle schools for full-time, in-person learning within his first 100 days in office.
NPR recently reported roughly 35% of public schools are currently offering some sort of hybrid learning schedule to all students, where children may not be in classrooms full-time but are still being offered some in-person learning. It’s a rapidly changing situation and, while many school districts have yet to make an announcement, experts are cautiously optimistic children will return by the normal beginning of the school year in the fall. By the fall, teachers and staff will be vaccinated. Currently, about 80% of teachers have received at least one dose. Research shows that mitigation measures like wearing masks and social distancing are very effective in reducing transmission in schools. It is also a good sign for a fall opening that the CDC’s new guidelines allow just three feet of social distancing in schools rather than six.
Fall In Line With Others
With that in mind, it seems most companies have their eye on the fall with Labor Day being a target for sending employees back to the office. In a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year, according to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network. Tech giant, Amazon, plans to have its headquarters employees return to the office by fall as the company transitions from having a remote workforce for most of the pandemic. Kraft, Heinz and American Express are also eyeing September as a return to the office date. After returning to the office in September, Google will test a flexible workweek with employees going into the office for only three days per week.
Some companies, such as retail giant Target, have had employees reporting to work throughout the pandemic. However, Target headquarters employees will be gradually returning back to the office throughout the summer and into the fall with plans to test out a hybrid work model of remote and on-premises work beyond 2021.
What Do Employees Want?
Assuming fall is the target date, the next question becomes, “Do employees return to the office every day, or can they continue to work remotely part of the time? For all the uncertainties surrounding a return to the workplace, we know one thing for sure – flexibility is a definite, and to be an employer of choice, employee opinions matter. A recent Microsoft study found over 70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while, interestingly, over 65% are craving more in-person time with their teams. A Robert Half survey reports that one in three employees currently working from home would look for a new job if required to return to the office full-time. Money speaks and the premium employees put on remote work is loudly clear. OnePoll conducted a poll of 1,000 UK office workers on behalf of Citrix. 75% polled would accept a pay cut in return for a job that allowed them to work remotely. 27% said they would accept a pay cut of between 15-20% for a fully remote role, with 26% prepared to accept a pay cut of over 20% for the benefit of remote work.
What Do Employers Want?
Employers are in the difficult position of implementing policies favored by employees but also answering to their shareholders looking at the bottom line. Deciding whether employees can remain remote some or all of the time must be thoughtfully considered but can start with the simple question, “When does remote work make sense?” On a basic level, working from home lends itself to relatively independent, predictable tasks where the work product can be easily shared from a distance. Some examples are the tasks performed by accountants, bookkeepers, financial analysts and computer programmers. Tasks dependent on hands-on operation of equipment and face-to-face personal contact cannot or shouldn’t be performed remotely. Some examples are doctors, teachers and those in retail. There are definitely gray professions that may or may not work well remotely such as those in the hospitality, engineering and entertainment sectors.
The decision to go remote or not cannot be left up to employees. Employers must conduct an honest assessment of what the company’s business requires of its employees and situate employees accordingly. Once an organization has conducted this analysis and determined its jobs are conducive to remote work, it is certainly fine to survey employees to better understand their wants. It is only advisable to conduct such a survey if leadership plans on acting on the survey results and provide clear explanations to employees about why or why not actions are implemented.
Remote Work Challenges
While remote work is having its moment and has proven advantages, it also presents some real challenges. It can be lonely, particularly for extroverts who need human interaction on a regular basis. An office environment automatically provides social opportunities from team collaboration to simple watercooler talk. Speaking of teams, they have become more siloed during the pandemic as remote team members spend more time engaging with members of their own department and may have no idea what is happening in other departments. The incidence of bottlenecks, reinventing the wheel and other inefficiencies can skyrocket with a remote workforce.
A remote work environment isn’t particularly conducive to collaboration either. Remote team members miss out on certain cues that are essential to the collaborative process such as body language, and direct, unfiltered information about people’s actions and states of mind. The creative flow of ideas can be stifled by Zoom as opposed to in-person meetings that spark energy and innovation.
Speaking of Zoom, another very real challenge facing employees is digital exhaustion. Time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled globally and continues to climb. The average meeting is 10 minutes longer, increasing from 35 to 45 minutes. The average Teams user is sending 45% more chats per week and 42% more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise.
The inability for face time with colleagues over the past year has particularly hurt Gen Z employees between the ages of 18 and 25. Gen Z is more likely to be just embarking on their careers and in need of training, mentoring and time with the boss. This generation has reported more difficulty dealing with isolation resulting in lack of motivation and engagement.
Even with its challenges, a Microsoft study found that 73% of those surveyed want flexible work options to remain post-pandemic.
An Unexpected Benefit Of Remote Work
One of the brightest and somewhat unexpected upsides of the shift to remote work is that it widened the talent marketplace. People no longer had to leave their home to further develop their career having a profound effect on the talent found in the marketplace. During the pandemic, remote job postings on LinkedIn increased more than five times, and people are taking notice. 46% of remote workers recently surveyed are planning to move to a new location this year because they can now work remotely. Diversity hiring initiative have also strengthened during the pandemic. Companies in large cities can hire talent from anywhere, giving them access to underrepresented groups of talent from those without the means or desire to live in a big city.
A Hybrid Work Model May be the Answer
Research seems to point toward employees wanting the best of both worlds (working from home and at the office). While a majority have expressed a desire to remain remote, the Microsoft study previously mentioned reports 67% of employees want more in-person work or collaboration post-pandemic. A SHRM study reported 55% of 1,200 workers surveyed between Nov. 24 and Dec. 5 said they prefer working remotely three days a week. Meanwhile, 68% of 133 U.S. executives said workers should be in the office at least three days a week, citing concerns that company culture will not survive a purely remote work model. Clearly the answer lies somewhere in the middle and for many employers, a hybrid work arrangement may be the answer.
Hybrid work models can take different forms, but, generally, it is a model in which employees can create a work-from-home schedule while still having the option to go into the office when they want to connect with colleagues. Developing a hybrid work model requires more thought than some may expect. Hiring responsible, dedicated and engaged employees is critical as managers must be able to trust employees to accomplish their tasks no matter their location. Managing employees in a hybrid work model is completely different from managing an onsite workforce. Managers need to develop systems that help employees stay on track so that deadlines are met.
Even the most hard-working employees may find it difficult to stay on track and focused in a home environment. Managers must be clear about performance expectations and communicate them often to employees. There should be no question about the amount of flexibility afforded employees concerning their whereabouts on given days and at certain times. Employees must feel like they are part of a team even when not in the office, and those in the office may need reassurance those working remotely are pulling their weight. Accountability for meeting performance goals is key.
Smart HR Can Steer You in the Right Direction
The HR landscape has completely changed over the past year requiring HR professionals to stay abreast of new legislation, ensure the well-being of a stressed and uncertain workforce, adapt, change and create new policies concerning leave and remote working arrangements, and spearhead efforts to create a safe working environment for employees returning to the office. It’s a lot of responsibility, but you don’t have to do it alone. Smart HR consultants have been the go-to resource for their clients over the past year concerning all things COVID-19 and pandemic related. All signs point to a very busy fall and winter as many employees return to the office. If you need assistance creating a clear path forward for your organization, Smart HR can help. Call today.