It’s top-of-mind for every employer: when, and how, should employees return to the workplace?
Government officials say there will be enough COVID-19 vaccine supply to vaccinate everyone in the United States by the summer, but some CEOs are pushing return-to-work dates into the fall, or refusing to commit to specific dates, signaling to workers that 2021 may be another year of working remotely.
New research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that 27 percent of organizations plan to bring all employees back to the worksite when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available. Thirty-four percent of organizations are unsure when they will bring all employees back to the worksite; 18 percent do not ever plan to have all employees return to the worksite; and 5 percent of respondents reported that a return-to-work date has already been set.
Research shows that the skepticism many companies previously had about maintaining productivity while working from home started to erode in 2020, but negative aspects of the remote experience—isolation, diminished collaboration, longer hours and burnout—are getting starker as we approach the one-year anniversary of the abrupt transition to working from home.
Potential downsides to remote and hybrid work arrangements come from an erosion of the organizational norms that culture and performance rely on, such as trust, cohesion and shared experiences, and from the risk of two divergent organizational structures emerging: one in person, one virtual.
Another concern is polls that show many workers don’t want to return to the way things were before the pandemic. SHRM found that over half (52 percent) of 1,000 U.S. workers would choose to permanently work from home on a full-time basis if given the option.
Of those who would choose to work permanently from home, 35 percent would accept a reduction in salary if it meant they could permanently work from home and 66 percent would still choose to permanently work from home full-time if the majority of Americans got the COVID-19 vaccine and herd immunity was achieved.
“The research confirms that the post-COVID workplace will be a hybrid onsite/remote work model,” said Cali Williams Yost, a workplace change strategist, author, speaker and CEO of New York City-based Flex+Strategy Group. “However, there’s a meaningful divide between what HR leaders say they expect the mix of full-time onsite, partially onsite and full-time remote will be and what employees say they want. Closing that gap, aligning expectations and then executing a new flexible way of operating will be the next-stage challenge for organizations.”
Rachael McCann, senior director, health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson, said that the SHRM findings are in line with her organization’s research which found that 59 percent of employees indicated a preference for a hybrid or remote structure, with notable variances. For example, 25 percent of women prefer a binary choice of remote work regardless of income, where men’s preference for remote work grew with income.
Speaking about the SHRM survey, McCann said that the willingness to accept less income is not surprising, but likely correlated with higher income, dual-income households and a greater ability to make income and flexibility tradeoffs.
“Employers should invest in a holistic, integrated and sustainable flexible work strategy that works for their business, industry and talent expectations,” McCann said. “Ultimately an evolving flexible strategy that is developed and executed across business and HR stakeholders with an emphasis on change management and governance can support wellbeing, DEI and ultimately business performance.”
Mary Moreland, executive vice president of human resources at Abbott, a global health technology company based in the Chicago area, said that she would encourage organizations to safely get people back to offices.
“It’s critical—for innovation, for personal and professional development, for the workplace culture and for returning to a sense of normalcy through social interactions,” she said. “From a cultural perspective we know we’re always stronger when we’re together.”
Manager discretion will be the most critical point of failure or success, said Shujaat Ahmad, a Future of Work strategist at LinkedIn. “That’s particularly true as we think about ensuring equity across work modes,” he said. “To enable both will and skill, the next phase will require an insights-driven approach to curate an employee experience that works for the team and the individual.”
Moving Toward a Hybrid Model
Hybrid work models, in which some employees are onsite while others work from home, have become the keystone to corporate reopening plans. Google was one of the first to announce in December 2020 that its planned return to the office—set for September—would feature a pilot program in which employees would be expected to work at least three days a week onsite and the rest of the time remotely.
In recent weeks Salesforce announced that it will let employees choose whether they want to come into the office, saying “the 9-to-5 workday is dead,” and Spotify employees were notified that they will have the option of working full-time from home, the company’s offices or a combination of the two under a new flexible work model set to debut in the summer.
As an essential business, Abbott never closed during the pandemic, but shifted to a hybrid in-person/remote model. Moreland said that the company implemented measures to ensure a healthy work environment for all onsite employees, including daily temperature checks, cleaning and disinfection protocols, and personal protective equipment requirements. Abbott is also testing for COVID-19 at worksites.
“Currently we are testing 25,000 workers at more than 50 sites in eight countries and we’re adding more each week,” she said.
Yost said that the biggest challenge facing all these organizations as they move from announcement of going hybrid to execution will be finding “the exact mix of home and office.”
“That’s going to require a whole new way of operating supported by a framework of planning, coordination and execution skills that need to be part of the implementation,” she said. “Otherwise it’s like giving people the keys to a new car without showing them how to drive it.”
Remote Work Can Work
Former Symantec CHRO, executive coach and public speaker Amy Cappellanti-Wolf works with business leaders who’ve cited the many upsides to organizational culture when their companies went remote.
“Many employees who moved to remote work as a result of COVID-19 are enjoying benefits few could have foreseen in environments where one was expected to be in the office the majority of the time,” she said. “Early in the pandemic, some leaders worried the culture, engagement and collaboration built up by face-to-face social capital would suffer as dispersion evaporated it. What’s developed is an alternative form of empathetic social capital derived from seeing people in their homes, with their children, pets, etc.”
Cappellanti-Wolf said that while it’s essential to make sure necessary work gets done, productivity is “table stakes compared to deeper and more important performance management issues that bear directly on organizational success.”
She advised business leaders to focus on:
- Sustaining business agility.
- Maintaining an engaged, motivated and unified culture.
- Ensuring alignment on priorities and key objectives. “Simply put, everyone has a line of sight to how they contribute and are performing against the top priorities.”
- Supporting the workforce with empathy and open communication.