When Elon Musk mandated a return to the office for Tesla employees in June 2022, pundits cautioned other business leaders against following suit. Statistics clearly show that most people prefer remote work. A 2022 study by Buffer found that:
- 97% of people would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers;
- 97% of people would recommend remote work to others;
- 90% of people who have worked remotely report that their experiences with remote work were somewhat or very positive;
- A study reported by Forbes confirms that remote and hybrid employees are happier, more productive, and stay in their jobs longer than when they worked solely in-office; and
- Another study, also reported by Forbes, found that 90% of remote workers are at least as productive, or even more productive, than when they worked in the office full time.
Even as hiring freezes and layoffs, especially in the tech sector, dominate the news, there are still 11 million open positions in the United States and only 7.5 million people available to fill them. Employees who prefer remote work – and that’s clearly a majority – may rebel against return-to-office mandates and look for work elsewhere, with ample opportunities to choose from.
It’s understandable, however, that employers are struggling with a remote workforce. The modern office, and the way it functions, has been in place since the end of World War II. The rapid shift to remote work required managers to adapt and develop new skill sets, often through trial and error. Rather than continuing to adapt management styles and policies, it may seem easier to many to simply require employees to return to the office.
But as employees dig in their heels and refuse to return to their cubicles, companies need to rethink the way that they do business. To keep top talent, employers need to embrace remote work and figure out how to best support those employees who are happy working at home.
Acknowledge the Massive Societal Workplace Shift
As much as employers may want the workplace to return to pre-pandemic norms, experts argue that that will never happen. As Amy C. Edmondson points out, “Too many are asking whether we will go back to normal. … There is no going back to pre-COVID times. There is only forward—to a new and uncertain future that is currently presenting us with an opportunity for thoughtful design.”
Now familiar with the benefits of remote work, employees will do what it takes to retain those benefits. Ragu Bhargava, CEO at Global Upside, a global expansion technology and services company, points out in an interview with Forbes that America’s staggering quit rates (4.2 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in June 2022) demonstrate the public’s understanding of their collective bargaining power. Bhargava goes on to say that:
The pandemic revolutionized the workplace and expedited an already growing need for remote workers. The pandemic served as a massive wake-up call, teaching us not only that work was more than capable of being completed from home, but showing the need for flexibility for employees to take control of their own schedules—a necessity for those with long commutes, pricey childcare arrangements and those who simply wanted to spend more time with their families.
While some businesses hoped to find a middle ground with a hybrid approach, many American workers simply aren’t interested. Several high-profile companies, including Apple, walked back their plans for a three-day-a-week in-office work model this summer when their employees balked.
Beyond simply embracing remote work as a way to attract and retain top talent, employers need to understand that no one-size-fits-all workplace plan will suit every employee – or business. Some employees will prefer to work in the office; some will prefer a hybrid approach but with the ability to set their own in-office hours; and some will prefer to remain fully remote with flexible work hours that fit their work/life balance needs. At the same time, some of these options may simply be untenable for a business. As we move forward, flexibility will be key. It will also be critical for employers to adopt new policies that will support employees, regardless of where they work in order to help them thrive.
Encourage Honest Dialogue to Find a Balance
To keep employees happy, which increases productivity and retention, it’s important for employers to have honest conversations with their employees around workplace expectations.
In an ideal world, every employee could decide for themselves when and where to perform their jobs. But some work is better performed on site. As well, work still needs some structure. And finally, it’s important that all work arrangements are mutually beneficial for employees, employers, and the business itself. This is why two-way honest and open dialogue is important. A piece at Harvard Business School advises employers to:
- Talk to your employees in person about their thoughts around remote/hybrid/in-person work and ensure that they feel safe sharing their thoughts;
- Reflect on the data collected and develop a plan of action;
- Be transparent and explain why you chose the course of action that you did;
- Be accountable and ask for feedback; and
- Implement your plan and assess periodically, making adjustments as required.
Honor the societal shift that has happened and keep in mind that a new model of employer-employee relationships are emerging. It’s important to consider each employee individually, understanding how their personal circumstances are driving their work-related choices and being transparent about the truth at all times.
Create New Ways to Connect
A very real concern around fully remote work is the isolation and loneliness that employees feel while plugging away at home. Quite seriously, this can lead to mental health issues which are problematic for the employees themselves, of course, but also for managers, employers, and businesses. Less seriously, a lack of connection can inhibit spontaneous collaborations and effective teamwork.
It can feel unnatural to implement virtual activities that foster connection, since all those activities need to be scheduled. And some employees may be reluctant to participate. Managers and employers need to develop and hone their skill sets around virtual connection and team engagement. As pointed out in a piece at Buffer, “Connection and teammate engagement in a remote environment requires twice the effort of in-person workplaces.” But those opportunities for connection don’t always have to be structured and scheduled. Managers, for instance, could host virtual drop-in hours on Zoom, for anyone to pop in as they wish.
Embrace Asynchronous Work
Asynchronous work helps your employees manage the flexible work hours that they crave. There are times when all employees do indeed need to be present. But a major benefit of remote work is that it allows employees to structure their work lives around their other obligations. If they are caregivers or have a disability that requires sporadic rest (e.g. migraines) or if they are ill or have medical appointments or if they live in a different time zone, asynchronous work allows them to still get their daily duties done. Despite their unstructured days, statistics clearly show that remote employees are at least as productive at work, or even more so, than their in-person counterparts.
According to Buffer, only 38% of companies currently have an async work policy. Employers may need to give some thought to their communication styles and tools – perhaps replacing some Zoom meetings with Slack channels, for example – in order to create an async-friendly workplace.
Optimize In-Office Time
While some companies are allowing their employees the choice to be fully remote (Dropbox is one), other companies have work that must be performed on site. But now that employees know that they can do most or all of their jobs online at home, some may be reluctant to return to the office. After all, if Zoom meetings remain the norm for your team, why should workers sit in their cubicles or offices to chat with their colleagues virtually?
As eloquently pointed out in a piece in Cubed, “What workers appear to want, more than luxurious amenities, free lunch, or even Lizzo concerts, is to know why they’re going back after years of demonstrating that they can do their jobs just fine from home. They want justification for the sad desk salads, all the hours lost to commuting, wearing professional clothes.”
If you require your employees to be on site for all or part of their workweeks, optimize their time in the office. One suggestion is to schedule time for team members to connect in person on those days when they’re in the office to foster those personal interactions and opportunities for collaboration.
The pandemic was difficult for a lot of people. Some may have coped with the loss of loved ones and some may have experienced mental health issues. Some may have lost a job or lost shared income when a partner lost their job. Some may have been unable to visit elderly parents or may have been required to home school children while juggling work and other obligations. Some may have taken part in the social justice movements that spread across the globe.
While they lived through all this change and stress, people had a chance to re-evaluate their life and career goals and to seriously consider the importance of work/life balance. While some of the aforementioned stressors may no longer exist, the workforce that is returning to offices in 2022 has been changed by their experiences.
These workers require compassion and empathy. Managers should work meaningful interaction with all employees into their day-to-day. Active listening, checking in, offering support, making team members feel heard and valued, and acknowledging and thanking workers for their efforts will all be critical.
These workers are also seeking more meaningful interactions with the world. Community and shared experiences are more important to many. As pointed out in a piece at Harvard Business School, “Going forward, employees are going to expect commitment to making a positive difference in the lives and livelihoods of those touched by their organizations. They’re going to expect leaders to find ways to be more human-centric and sensitive to the needs of those around them.”
Create New, Needed Roles
This new workforce requires new leadership styles. The easiest way to meet this need may be for businesses to create new organizational roles. Some companies, for instance, have created Chief Health Officers. Others provide small stipends to employees who are willing to make an extra effort after office hours to connect with nearby coworkers. Whether part of the C-Suite or employees, it’s important for organizations to find and nurture those people who have a knack for enhancing a feeling of connection and belonging.
As the world continues to open up, workplaces will be filled with all kinds of unusual challenges. But, in today’s job market, employees hold the balance of power. If they’re unhappy with their current positions, they will simply look for a role that fits more closely with their needs and expectations. In order to attract and retain top talent in this environment, employers and managers need to envision a whole new way of working and find the skills needed to make that new path a success for everyone on it.