After nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, employee expectations and company strategies have permanently shifted. The surge of Omicron in December 2021 and January 2022 has once again delayed office reopening plans, according to The Wall Street Journal. Many banks and high-tech companies are shifting their strategies from office reopening to adjusting conventional office space depending on need and health conditions. For example, rather than devising an officewide return date, companies are working on systems that would vary the number of employees in offices depending on the Covid-19 infection rate for the indefinite future.
Employees by large majorities do not want to return to the office. About 75 percent of full-time US employees worked remotely during the pandemic. Of these workers, about 69 percent are still working from home, and 31 percent are working onsite. Many are saying they would rather quit than go back to the office.
Why are companies clinging to an outdated work environment?
During the two years of the pandemic, productivity didn’t suffer, with 90 percent of employees that worked from home during the pandemic saying they were as productive or more productive when compared to the office. (This is consistent with other research, which as has also found that remote workers are about 20 percent more produtive than in-office workers.) About 48 percent say they would start looking for another job that offered more flexibility in where – and when — they worked then go back to the office. Men said they would quit nearly 60 percent more than women. About 25 percent say they would take a pay cut of up to five percent to work remotely. Younger workers are more likely to look for more flexible work than older workers. Eighty-four percent of those who worked at home during the pandemic said that working from home made them happier.
These are just some of the findings of the fifth annual State of Remote Work report conducted by Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics in 2021. I first met the President of Global Workforce Analytics, Kate Lister, when I launched a hybrid environment for Medtronic in Santa Rosa in 2012. Then, she was already a global expert on remote work and heavily sought out for her expertise and frequently quoted by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Here are some other findings in the State of Remote Work 2021 report.
- Of those who worked from home during the pandemic, 73 percent have returned to the office at least one day a week, with 25 percent returning within the last month.
- The office has some benefits. Seventy-eight percent of works say they feel more included when at the office. But of those who have returned to the office, 57 percent say they prefer working from home full-time.
- Employers need to rethink the layout of the physical office space. If it isn’t wired for hybrid collaboration, it is a wasted space. Thirty-eight percent of workers report that their employers have upgraded their video technology to allow for more hybrid collaboration.
- Forty percent of employers provided a one-time payment to employees for working from home; 35 percent of employers provided a monthly stipend.
- Of those working from home, 55 percent say on average they work from home more hours than in the office; 12 percent say they work fewer hours than in the office.
- Thirty percent of men and 21 percent of women who work remotely reported working two or more extra hours per day at home.
Most employers of office workers were forced by Covid-19 into remote work. Now the challenge is to set up hybrid working models and redesign the office for collaboration and better virtual conference rooms. Successful companies will stop thinking about Covid-19 pandemic survival and instead think strategically and long-term about the future of work and the workplace to attract and retain their employees.
Think Strategically About Reopening the Office and Remote Work.
When we implemented a hybrid work model (then we called it flexible work environment) at Medtronic in Santa Rosa in 2012, our objective was to save $2 million a year from reduced office real estate and reinvest those savings into Research and Development. We also wanted to meet employee demands for remote work and a better work-life balance, which surveys showed was an unmet want of workers even then.
We thought through the steps to determine who could work from home and who needed to be in the office. The decision was based on the employees’ job duties. We invested in improved IT with more digital share sites, video conferencing technology, and upgraded cyper-security. We also taught managers to lead more purposefully and with more empathy. We had every team set up their operating norms for communicating with hybrid and in-office workers, when to meet in person or use video conferencing and new behavior and decision-making norms.
The employees who were allowed to work from home had the final choice to stay in the office or work from home. We provided them a monthly stipend to cover internet costs and sent them home with their laptop, an ergonomically designed chair, and printer.
We redesigned our office space to emphasize collaboration, and we found we could reduce our real estate footprint, saving $2 million a year. Our home-based workers were 22 percent more productive than those remaining in the office. But the in-office workers were more productive too because our office re-design saved them time and provided them better and more meeting rooms. We saved about $6,000 per worker per year, in addition to the annual office space savings.
As you rethink your office reopening plan, be strategic about it. Many leaders sadly are not. Many who call me are asking employees to choose which day they want to come in the office without strategically thinking about how to maximize the team’s presence at important meetings. They are not thinking through how to redesign the office to reduce space, add more meeting rooms, and video conference technology, and to create group time for maintaining relationships. Rather than announcing a return-to-work date to an outdated office design based on the local Covid-19 community infection numbers, why not embrace and strategically think through hybrid working with a redesigned office to improve company performance and addresses employee needs? When Covid-19 surges again, employers will have a reliable, flexible system to allow office employees to spend less time in the office.
Here are seven steps to start your hybrid work planning and to sidestep the rages of Covid-19:
- 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.
- Review your digital technology to support hybrid working and to provide younger workers the digital experience they want from work. This ought to include chatbots to answer commonly asked questions and digital learning platforms.
- For new and younger workers, develop a calendar for when they will spend most, if not all of their time, in the office to learn from mentors, managers, and peers. During this time, they will need 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 lockdown 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.
The pandemic has changed what workers want from their employers, and is beginning to change the thinking of executives to avoid the havoc Covid-19. Hybrid working and offices designed for collaboration are here to stay. The companies that rise to this challenge will be the winners.
This article was originally posted in November 2021 and updated on January 13, 2022.
To learn more, I suggest you download “9 Steps to Implement a New Post-Covid-19 Office Environment” or contact me directly at VA@VictorHRConsultant.com for a complimentary one-hour consultation.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne. He works with companies to transform HR and recruiting, implement hybrid work, 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.