COVID-19 changed the way we work. Will office life ever be the same?
When offices hastily closed in March 2020 to help slow the spread of COVID-19, employees expected to be back at their desks within a couple of weeks. Now, more than 18 months later, the American workplace has been transformed by what has become a massive and unplanned remote-work experiment. It’s uncertain when many offices may reopen, but it’s clear the virtual work revolution that began with the pandemic isn’t going away.
“We all have to accept the fact that the workplace is never going to be the same and that there is no plan,” says Stacie Haller, a career expert with ResumeBuilder.com, who sees an upside to that. “We now have a different purview of how we can work successfully, that it can be remote.”
While remote work isn’t an option in every field and hasn’t been ideal for everyone, many employees have thrived in their virtual settings and want to keep the flexibility and autonomy it has allowed them.
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“We know through all the data that employees don’t want to go back to the way things were before,” says Alexia Cambon, research director at Gartner. “We know that they are happier, healthier, more productive, have a greater chance for high performance and, probably more importantly, there’s great inclusiveness if we adopt hybrid work.” Gartner research shows 73 percent of women who were on-site prior to the pandemic, but remote since, say their expectations for working flexibly have increased in that time.
Rethinking the office model
Before the COVID-19 delta variant took hold in the U.S., many companies had plans to reopen with a hybrid approach , commonly asking employees to be in the office for part of the week. But while Gartner finds 60 percent of employees prefer a hybrid work model, experts say that shouldn’t simply mean requiring employees to be on-site certain days of the week.
“Any mandate on flexibility is inherently inflexible,” Cambon says. “If you’re going to mandate that an employee has to come in two to three days a week, there’s no room there to then design your own workday, and that’s what employees want.” Before the pandemic, employers asked employees to justify why they should work from home, she says. Now that they’ve proved they can successfully work remotely, she expects to see employees asking employers to justify why they should come into the office — and what makes it worth the commute.
Both Cambon and Deborah Lovich, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, say that more progressive companies have taken the extended time that the delta surge has dealt them to re-examine the reasons for bringing employees into the office and letting each team’s work drive their decisions.
“The most forward-thinking organizations are saying we’re going back for collaboration, social connection, training,” Lovich says. “That really changes what you think an office should be.”
Cambon and Lovich suggest that rather than expecting employees to come in, say, every Monday and Tuesday, a better hybrid model might involve a few days of in-person meetings once a month, or a weeklong retreat once a quarter. Or, there might be several weeks when a financial services team, for example, needs to be together in person at the end of the year, but that they could accomplish their work virtually otherwise. Office space could also be used for employees who are struggling with working from home because they have a small space, roommates or children at home.
Cambon says finding the right combination of in-person and virtual work will take creativity and experimentation. Lovich stresses that companies should consider that flexibility is not only about location, but also about the hours employees work. “You’ll see a variety of companies in the same industry announcing very different plans, which should tell you, nobody knows the answer. There’s not one answer,” she says.
Lovich also points out the importance of finding solutions for a whole team. “What COVID taught us is that flex work cannot be for an individual. It has to be for the team,” she says. “When the whole team is together online versus a whole team together in person, it works.”
Progressive organizations are also reconsidering their workplace culture. “They’re thinking about changing culture and leadership to be much more trust-based, impact-based, instead of input-based, like, ‘I see you, therefore I think you’re productive,’ compared to, ‘Wow, I see what you’ve accomplished, and I know you’ve been productive,’” Lovich says.
Raj Choudhury, associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, also sees remote work — especially the ability to work from anywhere, rather than merely from home — as a “win-win” for employees who get more flexibility and employers who can hire people from anywhere in the country or even the world.
He views it as creating equality in terms of allowing small towns to attract talent and offering more opportunity for women to climb the corporate ladder without having to relocate their families, something he says often takes a back seat in a dual-career household.
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Companies are competing with others for top talent who will be offered flexibility, and those that don’t will need to “get with the program” to stay current and competitive, Haller says. “Today’s modern woman is the one who calls the shots in her life and her family — who works remotely, who fits it to her schedule ... who is empowered to the totality of her life,” she says.
Companies that require a return to a fully on-site model could lose one in three employees, Gartner found.
Lovich agrees that employers need to tread carefully. “It’s an employee’s market right now. The world is short workers, and because of that we should really think about what we need and what we want and feel confident and courageous to speak up and have a voice. And a lot of companies are getting that, and so it’s a real opportunity to either shape the place you work to be the place it needs to be or go someplace else that does,” Lovich says. “For decades, we’ve been contorting our lives to fit around work, and COVID forced work to contort to fit around lives. Let’s not go back to the other way.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 changed the way we work. Will office life ever be the same?