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Remote Work + Return to Office or Not? How Leaders Can Address Changing Needs in a Virtual World

August 13, 2021 Deana LaFauci

Is it time to return to the office? Should we embrace hybrid work? Fully commit to work from home?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact workplaces, the Delta variant is adding another layer of unpredictability to many organizational plans.

There’s a lot to consider—and not everyone agrees on a clear path forward. Generationally, younger workers are more likely to support full-time remote work, with 55% of millennials questioning the wisdom of returning to the office.

As the past year has shown us, times of major change and transition can be destabilizing, uncertain and unsettling for our employees.

The way we work affects us deeply, and the difference between remote work and commuting to the office impacts every employee uniquely. Leaders have a responsibility to understand this impact and to meaningfully engage their teams at this time of transition.

Here are four ways you can consider and address changing needs in a virtual environment and best support your teams:

1. Gain an Edge in a Highly Competitive Job Market through Employee-Friendly Policies

With job openings at a record high, companies must work harder than ever to attract and retain employees. Workplace and schedule flexibility, once seen as a luxury, are now viewed as must-haves for many job seekers. Companies with employee-friendly policies have an edge in a competitive labor market.

In the past year, major companies and business experts have been open about the benefits of and their intention to adjust their work-from-home policies, work schedules and other aspects of their scheduling and workplace culture already in place. Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury says that many workers, especially women, are looking for jobs that offer this flexibility.

Giving power to individual teams allows for productivity to remain at a high level, while also increasing employee happiness. Additionally, since many businesses are now becoming more flexible, organizations that fail to revise their current policies may see it harder to recruit and retain employees in the future.

2. Provide Space for Employee Feedback—and Really Understand the Data You Collect

A recent survey showed 65% of people who started working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so. But, consider the fact that many employees experienced working from home for the first time during an unprecedented global health pandemic, when they were feeling high stress about their family’s health, economic instability and widespread uncertainty.

As the pandemic continues and employees adjust to a new work-from-home reality, their perceptions continue to shift. According to a PwC survey, 73% of employees felt the move to remote work was successful in June 2020. But, that number shot up to 83% in December 2020.

Next Step: Every employee is different, so consult with your employees and team members about their work format. Ask them what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past year and be prepared to develop and implement policies based on what they share.

3. Leave Bias at the Door When It Comes to Productivity

Some executive leaders, especially those in more traditional settings, believe that in-office work is inherently more productive than remote work. Many of the organizations they work at never had a fully remote workforce to test out this hypothesis.

Now, we have the data to help us understand the connection between productivity and remote work. According to the same PwC survey, remote work made organizations more productive, with 52% of executives reporting that employees are more productive than they were before the pandemic, up from 44% in the earlier survey. And, this increased productivity has an even broader organizational impact: Employees who report higher productivity are more likely to say their companies are better at collaborating on new projects and serving customers.

A remote workforce in 2022 will act and perform differently than the same workforce does in 2021 and did in 2020. But the data we are seeing shows that productivity can be enhanced through format flexibility.

Next Step: Ask your fellow managers and executives to report out on productivity over the past year to gauge what worked for your organization. Get the real data, and don’t fall back on outdated or biased assumptions about remote workforces and remote work.

4. Consider the Inclusive Benefits of Remote Work

For a large number of organizations, a major shift to a remote workforce came at exactly the right time. Growing organizations looking to attract and retain diverse talent and leaders from underrepresented groups already understood that flexibility, remote work and non-traditional schedules can be an important way to engage new talent populations.

Here’s what makes remote work inclusive:

  • It meets the needs of women and those from underrepresented groups: In a recent survey, job search company FlexJobs found clear differences in the remote work experience for men and women, with 68% of women saying they preferred exclusively remote work, versus 57% of men. Organizations looking to mitigate the professional impact of the pandemic on women leaders are rolling out improved, women- and family-friendly benefits and schedules designed to support women in the workplace.
  • It allows you to hire from a more diverse talent pool from across the country. “In San Francisco, for example, only 5.2% of the city’s population is Black, compared to 13.4% of the US population as a whole,” writes Samantha McLaren on the LinkedIn Talent Blog. “Research also suggests that for entry-level roles, Black candidates may be almost twice as likely as other candidates to be unwilling to relocate for a position if there is no stipend provided, since moving to a new city—especially one with a high cost of living—may not be financially viable.” Organizations are looking to hire from an expanded, remote population in order to meet their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) and scaling goals.

Next Step: Review and renew your DE&I commitments in 2021. What benchmarks are you measuring against, and how are you gauging success? Then, research how flexible and remote work affects talent within your industry and within your organization, so that any decision you make about work-from-home policies helps to advance inclusion and diversity at your organization.

BIG TAKEAWAY

We have experienced a lot in the past 16 months—and the needs for both organizations and employees have drastically changed. The policies you put in place now could have an impact on your talent for years to come. In making a decision that affects your talent in a big way, it’s important to consider all the angles. With these considerations, you can begin an important exploration and discover a workplace format that works best for and truly benefits your teams and organization.

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