Leaders often speak with me about the repeated delays in calling back to the office their remote employees and alternative optimum dates for their return. In fact, some organizations have rescheduled the return-to-the-office date four times. Others have recalled managers to the office five days a week and employees one or two days, without thinking through changes to meeting schedules and operating norms.
Many observe their mostly vacant offices and somehow believe their obligation is to fill every chair, as opposed to realizing they no longer need all that expensive office space. Instead, they need to think about how to redesign office work for hybrid working.
The employees called back-to-the-office a few days a week are conflicted with issues such as whether they need to lug large monitors to and from the office, or when they work from the office, whether they are restricted to one screen? The employees complain about commuting, interruptions in the office, and restrictions on their flexibility. In many cases, I have noticed that the decisions governing their working lives are not strategic. They may have to go into a bad office environment for heads-down work and then attend a staff meeting from home the next day! (Ideally, of course, they would be in the office for the staff meeting and doing heads-down work at home.)
With the surge in the Delta variant, employees are also concerned about being exposed to COVID19 from mostly unvaccinated workers and don’t like having to wear a mask all day to be safe. Many recalled employees, as indicated by several surveys, already looking for another employer that will accommodate more flexibility and remote work. A new survey conducted by in May by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News found that out of 1,000 people surveyed, 39 percent would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. Among Millennials and Gen-Z, that number was 49%.
I believe employers who want to return to the office environment of 2019 are going to be on the wrong side of history. They will be left behind as the best employees go to the enlightened workplaces that have redesigned their environment to better accommodate worker flexibility and implemented new — and thoughtful — norms for hybrid working. Enlightened employers will recognize that the office will change to be a place for holding meetings, building relationships, and aligning with company strategies and culture.
COVID19 has become endemic, like polio, smallpox, measles, and influenza, and can no longer be thought of as a pandemic that will fade away by the end of the year. Vaccines are essential and are enabling our dramatic economic expansion. The parts of the world that have vaccinated against polio, measles, and smallpox have stamped out these endemics. Influenza is trickier and thus requires annual vaccines to keep it and its many strains in check. The medical evidence shows that FDA-approved COVID19 vaccines have achieved amazing success in preventing illness from the virus. Still, many workers resist getting vaccinated. And the FDA is planning to approve COVID19 booster shots by the end of September, as scientific evidence mounts that immunity wanes eight months after the second shots. Additionally, deadlier variants continually emerge, such as the lambda variant which is currently in 28 countries.
Open bay offices are the perfect design to spread a highly infectious virus that is endemic. We need first to recognize that COVID19 is endemic and to change our working environments to prevent the spread of the disease. Just as importantly, CEOs and their executive teams need to recognize that young workers (and even many baby boomers) have grown accustomed to the digital technology that makes entertainment, building relationships, learning, and communications easy for their personal lives. They want this technology in their work-life, too. COVID19 has taught us all that Teams, Slack, Zoom, chatbots, online and on-demand training, as imperfect as they currently may be, are part of the solution that has driven up remote worker productivity since the onslaught of COVID19.
Although not as convenient as Alexa or Siri or ordering a product on Amazon, these workplace technologies have enabled productivity improvement with hybrid working. If your organization isn’t building digital transformation plans to expand these technologies, you again will be on the wrong side of history. According to PWC, over 60 percent of executives expect to raise spending on virtual collaboration tools and manager training. Half plan to invest more in areas that support hybrid working models, including hoteling apps (50 percent).
What does the right side of history look like?
Let’s start by reflecting on what we know about office work from COVID19 shutdowns. I have created a list:
- Although the transition was sudden and rough at first, managers and employees adjusted and become more productive. Repeated surveys show that 70 percent or more employees were more productive than before the pandemic. Studies on remote and hybrid working before COVID19 show that the average productivity increased by 20 percent.
- According to a recent study by Pew Research, employees and managers adopted well to digital technologies and generally felt they were not a problem—not even the often-criticized ZOOM.
- Many employees worked too many hours at first when working remotely, according to Pew Research but learned to set new work norms with their bosses.
- Younger workers, women, and people of color struggled with remote work more than others either because their residences and households were not conducive to remote work or they had bad Wi-Fi, according to Pew Research. This is still a problem. According to PWC, employees with the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) are more likely to want to be in the office more often. Thirty percent of them prefer being remote no more than one day a week vs. just 20 percent of all respondents. The least experienced workers are also more likely to feel less productive while working remotely (34 percent vs. 23 percent). They’re more likely to value meeting with managers or company training programs than their more experienced colleagues.
- Some academics such as Wharton’s Peter Cappelli (whose writings I admire) have suggested that remote workers will not benefit from facetime with the boss, and their careers will suffer. Even a few CEOs have said that remote workers will not see their careers advance as much as in-office workers in an attempt to frighten workers back to the office. It didn’t work, and it is wrong. Many studies, such as from Gartner and Glassdoor show that if companies don’t develop the careers of their employees they will leave. Sorry, the shoes are on the employees’ feet in tight labor market. Companies need to change their talent strategies to offer compelling career development even if they work remotely. (More to come on this later.)
- Remote work saves tons of carbon emissions. The latest United Nations IPCC Sixth Assessment of Climate Change, 2021, strongly states that we need to start now to earnestly reverse climate change and be carbon neutral by 2035. About 28 percent of all green house gases come from the transportation sector. According to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, “There is no easier, quicker, and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel. The annual environmental impact of half-time remote work (for those who both want to work remotely and have a compatible job) would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking the entire NY State workforce off the road.”
- According to PWC, more than half of employees (55 percent) would prefer to be remote at least three days a week, once pandemic concerns recede.
Rather than plan a return-to-work date to an outdated office environment, why not make embrace hybrid working and redesign the office. Here are seven ways to start:
- Identify who can work remotely three to four days a week based on their job duties. If most of their work is done through the computer and most communications can be handled by text, email, phone, and video conferencing, they can work from home. They will be required to come into the office for staff meetings, special project meetings, and one-on-one meetings at least one day a week. They will no longer have dedicated personal office space in the office, but touch-down space — such as you see in airports — to go online when they need to.
- Don’t force remote work on those employees who want to return to the office four to five days a week. Leave it a choice. These employees are to be allowed to keep their personal office space.
- Each department and team should work with their employees to establish new teamwork and decision-making norms for the hybrid workforce. It is good to begin this work with a template and alter it based on department needs (such as Finance or Research & Development) and by the team. At the team level, these norms need to include agreements for when each employee will be working and not working during the day to allow worker flexibility and immediate availability to the team, and to prevent worker burnout, following the teams’ norms.
- Review your digital technology to support hybrid working and to provide younger workers the digital experience they want from work. This ought to include digital learning models.
- For new and younger workers, develop a calendar when they spend more time in the office to learn from mentors, managers, and peers. During this time, they are to have dedicated personal office space. When they reach defined competence levels, they can switch to a hybrid work model.
- Following the above plan, determine how much dedicated personal office space you need to retain and convert the rest to more meeting rooms with excellent video conferencing equipment, touch-down spaces, and training rooms. The remaining space can be sold off or sub-leased. You will find yourself saving a small fortune that can be used to fund critical business strategies.
- Establish measures to see that you build upon your productivity gains during the COVID19 lock down and improve employee morale and engagement. These measures should include ensuring your employees who work remotely are still getting the mentoring and development needed to advance their careers and retain them — equal to in-office high potential employees. Also, track your cost and carbon emission savings.
With COVID19 and climate change, we are at the dawn of frightening new era.. But there is a path forward that will improve both your bottom and top lines, and do the planet some good as well.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com.