Striking the right balance between asking workers to return to the office and providing opportunities for work-at-home has become a challenge for corporate retail executives. So far, workers have been in a position of power to make demands around schedules, but as the labor market tightens up, the employers may have more of a say in the policies of a hybrid work environment.
The evidence is clear that employees want to work from home at least for part of the work week. A recent survey from McKinsey found that 58 percent of Americans have the opportunity to work remotely at least one day a week, and 35 percent can do so every day. Among those given the chance to work from home, 87 percent take it. And remember, remote work may not be working from home, it’s just not working in the office. Shared workspaces are back, whether it’s a local coffee hangout or a WeWork space.
After two work-from-home years of zero (or at least greatly reduced) commuting expenses, private bathrooms, attending meetings in pajama pants, attending to young children or aging parents, workers who are forced to return to the office feel that they are giving up life/work benefits.
Mandates of Returning Full-Time to the Office Are Risky
Forcing the issue of returning to the office full-time is not the answer, especially as employers are striving hard to become the employer of choice. A stunning 64 percent of workers ages 18 to 24 say they would consider looking for another job if their employer insisted they return to the office full-time, according to a recent report from ADP Research Institute.
Working from home for next-gens, including Gen Z and soon-to-be-remote Gen Alpha, is table stakes. Work/life balance for millennials and Gen Z has become a demand, not a request. So, next-gens question why a company would not allow them to work from home. And all employees considering returning to the office or prospective workers want the flexibility to build their own schedules. We can’t underestimate the shift in attitudes about work that have emerged since the pandemic.
The top four motivators for job seeking applicants are: providing a higher salary/living wage, flexible schedule, better benefits, and the ability to work remotely, according to the Career Builders 2022 survey. Additionally, 84 percent of employed adults wish their jobs would offer a 4-day work week by extending hours on those four working days. Kristin Kelley, chief marketing officer for Career Builders, discussed in an interview how the most competitive businesses are offering high salary, flexible or hybrid work schedules, better benefits, and growth opportunities. “Jobs that have high salary (as compared to the competition) are getting eleven times more applications and flexible hybrid benefits attract seven times more applicants.”
What Makes Remote Work Successful
Kelley discussed some of the key characteristics of a successful remote work environment that provides employees the best ability to succeed.
- There should be clear expectations and outcomes. Shorter meeting times and prepared agendas prevent workers from being over-scheduled, allowing them enough time to perform work.
- Using time blocking is very important, a time management technique that divides a person’s workday into blocks of time dedicated to a specific task(s). It eliminates the never-ending to-do list.
- Respect employees’ time off by not constantly expecting remote employees to be working; in other words, give them time to work and respect their non-work time.
- Tooling is a critical aspect of remote work which means giving workers the tools to get the job done. Examples would be using Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, messaging tools, integrated calendars, etc. Kelley said, “Tooling is providing a collective set of tools that allows for employees to create, share, store and communicate work, but these must have a set of rules and processes to be highly effective.”
- Companies need to think about who is working remotely and how to best support them. Remote working environments, when left unchecked, can result in employees feeling a high sense of isolation.
According to SRM (Society of Human Resources) and a recent study by Business Group of Health and Fidelity, 60 percent of companies say their employees will be returning under a hybrid model, but the real change with employees is a shift from a focus on work-life balance to a new post-pandemic mandate of life-work balance. Companies are investing in employee health and wellness by offering programs for mental health, physical health, and work-life balance. Most of the benefits are designed to keep workers productive and engaged in the company. C-level executives have learned from the pandemic that employee health and well-being initiatives lead to higher levels of employee engagement.
Pitfalls in the Hybrid Model
Companies can be more successful by understanding the pitfalls of a hybrid work environment. Developing a supportive environment includes office design, collaborating with the workforce in policies and procedures, an inclusive culture, and empathy
- Beware of Hot Desking
As companies reduce office space based on hybrid work schedules, hot desking is an alternative to traditional office layouts to offer workers who are in the office only a few days a week a place to work. Hot desking is an organizing system to ensure when workers show up randomly they have a workspace. The pitfall is since this is a first-come-first-serve system, if too many employees show up for work on the same day, there may not be enough space, creating high stress and anxiety for workers. Another drawback is that sharing desks among workers may not build high engagement for teams who need a more dedicated workspace. A better solution may be hoteling; a sign-up system to pre-book space before coming to the office so workers don’t have to worry about securing a workstation when they get there.
Personal empowerment is a high engagement motivation. Employers that promote collaboration and a non-hierarchal culture enable employees to schedule their work time as needed based on their job function or role. This engenders trust and respect.
Target announced that it will permanently offer a hybrid model for its downtown Minneapolis office which has 8,500 staff members. Employees will decide when to work at home and when they need to be in the office working in teams. “We really saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the future of work and the experience of work,” said Melissa Kremer, Target’s chief human resources officer.
- Equitable Representation
A key concern for companies is to make sure that underrepresented groups of workers do not become even more so in a hybrid model. Providing necessary tools for all employees helps to ensure that no one is at a disadvantage. Managing hybrid work takes a different set of skills; you can’t use the same approach and transfer it to a remote model. It may require managers to be retrained in a new approach based on tech-based collaboration, encouraging employee feedback, inclusivity, devising opportunities to showcase individual employee’s work and ensuring enough facetime with supervisors. Additionally, setting clear objectives and conducting regular performance reviews strengthens a distributed workforce.
The pandemic has permanently changed the mindset and values of employees and their attitudes toward work. After two work-from-home years of zero (or at least greatly reduced) commuting expenses, private bathrooms, participating in meetings in pajama pants, attending to young children or aging parents, workers who are forced to return to the office feel that they are giving up life/work benefits. Employers who hold onto the legacy everyone-in-the-office attitude risk losing talent, not to mention recruiting a skilled workforce. Companies can refocus their workplace culture to be an honest and productive collaboration with employees. Office design and dress codes may be simple adaptations. Empathy and listening to the concerns and needs of workers is critical. As is honest, empathetic feedback.
No More Free Lunch
There is a flip side to hybrid work and traditional perks that have attracted a next-gen workforce. One could argue that this paternalistic/maternalistic approach may have taken the edge off a workforce. With the current economic challenges, the fabled perks of the tech community have been under pressure and underperforming employees are being taken to task. A better idea than free lunch is to provide more relevant tools for workers and better collaborative communication tools. Snacks are appealing, but systems and tools that teach employees how to be more productive and high performing are a better win/win.
Hybrid Is Here to Stay
Hybrid work environments are here to stay, so corporate America needs some updating in terms of office culture, physical space and management strategies to provide employees with the ability to contribute in the most productive and positive ways. The key is understanding employees and listening to what is important to them. Whether it’s employee-run committees or councils, these cross-functional groups of diverse employees operate as empowering constructs to produce feedback on what a successful work environment would look like. Trust and empathy go a long way along the road to building a committed workforce.