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The Future Is Flexible: Offices Aren’t Going Away, But Remote Work Is Here to Stay

September 9, 2021
By Maggie Steinheimer

COVID-19 required companies to retrofit existing remote work policies. Now, it’s time to redesign them.

The pandemic has shifted nearly every aspect of life, and the workplace has been no exception. In the early days of COVID-19, many companies transitioned teams to a remote setup seemingly (or literally) overnight – inciting workplace shifts that might’ve taken years under normal circumstances. And while the changes to our working environments might have been immediate, they are anything but fleeting.  

As COVID-19 pressed companies to keep offices closed, a realization swept through the workforce: many roles can be fulfilled successfully from almost anywhere. In fact, a Conference Board study found 59% of employers surveyed reported a productivity increase since transitioning to remote work in 2020. And the flexibility was widely appreciated. According to MetLife, when employees were free to balance life’s needs through remote working, a majority (71%) reported feeling a greater sense of trust from their employer.

In short: remote work worked.

Fast Forward to 2021

Although the Delta variant has complicated matters as of late, offices started to reopen, and employees and employers alike have been considering new policies – expressing interest in long-term flexible work environments … as well as concerns. For example, some feel that working from home more closely resembles living at work. According to FleishmanHillard’s TRUE Global Intelligence and Talent + Transformation report, “The New Social Contract,” 58% of employees report regularly balancing taking care of family and job needs at the same time – blurring the boundaries of work and home life and risking burnout

Others miss the social interaction and collaborative opportunities of a shared workspace. A global study of more than 2,700 employees found 75% feel more socially isolated as a result of the pandemic. Still, research shows an overwhelming majority of individuals who worked remotely due to COVID-19 prefer to maintain that flexibility, and aren’t ready to give it up.

What’s at Stake? Your Workforce. 

While some companies are promising more flexibility than ever, others are doubling down on the importance of working in an office environment. But what’s at risk if employees are confronted with the demand to return to offices and abandon the flexibility they grew accustomed to over the past year? A Bloomberg survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if employers weren’t flexible about remote work. (Among millennials and Generation Z, that figure rose to 49%.)

Building a Culture of Connection in a Hybrid Workplace 

The good news: Physical and remote workplaces can coexist in a new era of flexibility. Companies are combining virtual and on-site work in new and exciting ways. And while not every employer will have massive budget to overhaul office setups and navigate logistical nightmares, there’s one essential tool any company can afford to improve: internal communication. 

Consider the following best practices for communicating clearly about new working models and effectively engaging a hybrid workforce: 

  • Focus on flexibility. Everyone and every job is different … and there’s no one-size-fits-all workplace model. Instead, employers should take inventory of unique workforces and the need to find common ground between what success looks like for both people and companies. 
  • Establish trust. “The New Social Contract” found nearly 30% of employees surveyed feel they are not trusted by their employers to maintain work-life balance. Leadership should lead the charge in shifting perceptions about flexibility with targeted communications. 
  • Engage employees. Engagement tactics might look different than before – but could be even more important as teams face potential disconnect. Employers should stay in contact, offer professional development opportunities, inspire ambassadorship and consider new virtual tools for collaboration.
  • Act with empathy. As employees continue navigating the pandemic and its resulting challenges, companies should infuse care into culture by communicating with an empathetic tone. It’s important to stay cognizant about how major work changes will potentially affect life at home – and to provide ample notice and detailed rational, as possible.  
  • Appreciate and recognizeCelebrating employee successes by outwardly recognizing a job well done is a powerful tool. Whether selected by leadership or establishing a peer-nominated program, companies can use recognition programs to motivate teams. 
  • Listen up. Companies should ensure employees have a voice with increased listening tactics like launching pulse surveys, hosting focus groups, collecting anonymous feedback or encouraging leaders to host skip-level meetings within their organizations. Feedback is crucial to maintaining and improving culture. 
  • Care for the frontlineNot every industry can operate in a hybrid environment. For millions of frontline workers, there are few alternative options to showing up in person. Companies should take care to provide targeted internal communications and support to these audiences, especially if other members of the team can enjoy more flexibility. 

Workplace flexibility is becoming increasingly important in creating an inclusive culture, driving employee engagement and attracting high-quality talent. And while we can’t be certain what the future holds, successful employers will continue to evolve to meet the blended needs of a hybrid workforce – meeting employees wherever they are.