One topic of conversation dominating boardrooms across the US is the one about returning to the office. While some companies have issued the mandate, reception among employees amid growing concerns over new COVID variants hasn't gone over well.
After all, many employees have worked remotely for the last two years — and have done so productively. In fact, an ADP study found that 64% of the workplace would consider quitting if they had to return to the office full-time.
With companies scrambling to fill jobs as employees quit in the Great Resignation, many organizations are pondering how to best navigate the delicate issue as they look to integrate their teams beyond the screen.
Understanding Both Sides of The Argument
A quick google search on the topic of return to work will point you to countless articles with perspectives on the topic (HBR, New York Times, Forbes). Both sides have their merits — making the issue a tricky one to steer.
Those in favor of returning to the office cite benefits such as:
- Easier collaboration and communication when face-to-face
- Better access to leaders (mentoring for mid-level and junior employees)
- Increased visibility for employees, which enhances opportunities
- Easier to develop connections with co-workers
Meanwhile, remote-first proponents have their share of benefits as well, including:
- Increased flexibility (greater balance of work and professional life)
- Collaboration and communication tools that deliver a similar in-person experience
- Lack of commute saves money and time
- Increased productivity and focus on output, not hours
So what’s a leader to do when both sides have fair points with very clear advantages for both employees and the business?
Navigating the Conversation
Leaders must realize that the work environment from 2019 cannot be recreated. Even when Google initiated its return to office program, the latest COVID variant and employee sentiment made them realize that a mandatory mandate was a poor one. And therein lies the crux of the argument.
It’s not that employees are unwilling to return to the office, as much as it shouldn’t be mandatory. Instead, companies should allow for flexibility — enabling employees to decide when it would be best to go to the office or work remotely.
Many organizations are starting to pivot in this direction, implementing flexible hybrid work models that take employee preferences into consideration. And this hybrid work model can take on many forms. After all, no one solution works for every organization.
With that in mind, it’s critical to thoroughly look at how work is defined in today's environment, how productivity is measured, how to engage employees, and how to use the best aspects of remote and onsite work to acquire and retain the best talent under a hybrid work model.
Companies having this conversation today should develop a framework that will help them arrive at the right decision for their organization. The three key aspects to consider are:
Employer brand has become more important than ever before. Particularly today as companies struggle to attract and retain talent in today’s tight labor market. And why it's becoming more important in C-suite conversations.
Companies must understand how their decision will impact current employees and their ability to attract prospective ones long term. As companies determine how to implement a flexible hybrid work model, the key to getting it right is involving employees from the start by getting their feedback.
Although it isn't possible to satisfy every employee, a sincere effort to get input, implement it where possible, and communicate how the final decision was made can go a long way in helping employees feel part of the process.
While organizations need to tailor this hybrid model to their individual needs, the in-office experience should provide employees with something they couldn’t get while working remotely.
In-person team meetings, project collaborations, celebrations, and special announcements make the trip to the office worthwhile. On the other hand, having an employee come in for a Zoom meeting would not — although that does happen.
When having these conversations, leaders should be open to understanding employee concerns. Leaders may not be able to alleviate employees' concerns completely, but by starting the conversation, they can understand the issues and establish transparency and psychological safety.
Much attention is paid to the onsite employees who transitioned to work remotely and are now being asked to return to the office. But what about the employees who were initially hired in that remote capacity and never worked in the office? How does a return affect them?
Forcing people to come into the office may not work due to a long commute or not being geographically close enough to commute at all. Not to mention the additional costs of traveling to work, which can weigh heavily on the minds of working parents amid fluctuating COVID concerns.
Fortunately, technology can help companies make the most of catering to their remote employees. They can leverage coworking spaces as satellite offices that employees can work out of a few times of the week — particularly for those that desire a separate workspace from the one at home.
The global coworking map gives great insight into the model’s growth and can be a great one for companies during this transitory phase. Notion, a project management and note-taking software company, has leveraged this approach to facilitate the creation of a flexible hybrid work model that employees enjoy. For those who want to work in an office, a stipend is provided to the nearest coworking space.
Not only does this approach enable it to cater to employees on both sides of the argument, it's also cost-effective — saving the business money in overhead, cost of renting space, and more.
Agility and flexibility
Uncertainty is the new normal. While we may not be able to predict the future, understanding how to build agility and flexibility into one’s workforce can go a long way in making the business more resilient for when the unexpected happens. One way business leaders can do this is by leaning into the independent workforce.
Recent research from Deloitte and MITSloan is already depicting the move toward this hybrid work model. Approximately 30%-50% of an organization's workforce is composed of contingent workers, with 74% of business leaders agreeing that effective management of external contributors is critical to their success.
Making independent knowledge workers a standard part of the workforce model helps businesses maintain continuity. When a portion of employees are independent workers, the business is better able to respond to evolving needs, capture future value more quickly, and scale on demand.
Likewise, this work model is in line with the increasing shift to a project-based economy, in which more and more employees will work in project management roles in the near future. Business leaders are realizing that taking a project-first approach to work can help drive both short-term performance and long-term value creation.
A flexible hybrid work model makes this possible. It empowers organizations to find the best talent worldwide — which is much harder to attain with an onsite-only policy.
Rethinking the Workplace
Having the remote vs. in-office conversation is complicated. We know because we were faced with the same situation at the onset of the pandemic. Ultimately we decided to make the shift into a remote-first company while still providing employees a flexible hybrid work environment where it makes sense.
Take our Chicago team, for example. Because a larger concentration of our sales employees are based there, we have enabled our team-lead to leverage a coworking space to meet with their team as needed. In contrast, we leverage technology to foster collaboration for our more dispersed teams while planning annual in-person events to get the company together.
Deciding on this hotly debated topic won't be a static move. It will include tweaks as companies adjust to what employees and the business need. Our advice? Commit to tailoring a solution based on your individual organization's needs while facilitating two-way communication between leaders and employees. In the process, the best path forward will reveal itself.