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The Post Pandemic Workforce

By Lynnda Nelson, President at ICOR:

As organizations reimagine the post pandemic organization, the impact of how the workforce returns to work and determining when remote work “works” and when it doesn’t, is top of mind. In this blog we will discuss the positive and negative aspects of remote working and factors to consider when building a more resilient and flexible workforce.

Which one best describes you?
“I just had 3 virtual meetings and I am exhausted…”
“I haven’t had any meetings today and I can’t get motivated to do anything…”

Understanding How You Like to Work and How Often You Like Interacting with Others Impacts Where/How You Do Your Best Work.

Remote Working – Not New, But a Significant Increase in Numbers
Forbes reports in its February 2021 article that even before the pandemic, there were over 5 million U.S. employees working from home at least half the time.  56% of the U.S. workforce have jobs that are at least partially compatible with remote work.  A typical employer can save about $11,000 USD per year for every person who works remotely half of the time.

“Being forced, and without notice, to a new way of work, was not easy for any organization that had not yet considered work from home prior to the pandemic. It was a challenge, but some found it to work well enough to not return to the office, while others are struggling to make it work.

 There are companies and employees that love the new work from home economy, while others are having a hard time making it work. The general consensus is that it works in the right situations.”

Great Place to Work found in a 2-year study of Fortune 500 executives that the percentage of employees working from home shot up from 5% pre-pandemic to over 60% in May 2020. The real question now is, “What is the future of work?”

McKinsey in its analysis of 2000 tasks, 800 jobs, in 9 countries confirms that there is a perhaps a permanent shift in WHERE work takes place.

“The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where works take place – at least for some people.”

Remote Work – Impact on Productivity
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) addressed the question of productivity.

“Historically, there has been a perception in many organizations that if employees were not seen, they weren’t working—or at least not as effectively as they would in the office,” said Lauren Mason, a principal and senior consultant at Mercer.  …this forced experiment around remote working as a result of COVID-19 has shattered those perceptions to prove that most employees can actually be trusted to get their work done from home.”

“Consider that remote workers during the pandemic have also had to deal with the intense stress of a worldwide global health crisis, and the compounded responsibilities of having children, partners, spouses or roommates at home, and yet they’ve been able to remain productive or actually increase their productivity.”

“Companies should continue to foster the sense of freedom and control that flexible work options provide and build strong flexible work programs.”

The Impact of CHOICE
Fast Company. While there is no research done at this time considering the long-term psychological effects of continued remote work, the key factor seems to be whether or not working from home is a choice versus a mandate.

Research prior to 2020 assumed that working from home was a choice rather than a necessity and that organizations offered alternatives between telecommuting or coming to the office.

This arrangement allowed for a significant degree of self-sorting, where employees gravitated to the option that best suited their personal circumstances (e.g., commuting time, location, physical space, and need for in-person meetings), as well as their personality.

What is evident in most of the research is that:

  1. What people value most is flexibility.
  2. The future role for the office may be to operate as a social theater where we can get our needed dose of in-person contact.
  3. Employers will soon differentiate themselves by their ability to offer choices.
  4. This big virtual reset will force organizations to improve their ability to measure employee performance, sanitizing and sterilizing office politics, and making companies more meritocratic and talent-centric.

A Review of Remote Work by the Numbers – March 2020-March 2021
LiveCareer.com, RingCentral and Microsoft conducted studies and found similar results:

  1. 81% of working professionals enjoy working remotely.
  2. 65% of respondents said remote work positively affected their work-life balance while 37% believed that their mental health deteriorated since working remotely.
  3. What is the most significant challenge of remote work?
    1. 59% – home distractions
    2. 45% – staying motivated
    3. 37% communication
    4. 36% collaboration
  4. 61% want their employer to let them work in a remote capacity indefinitely even after the pandemic is over with 73% wanting remote work options to continue at some level.
  5. 29% of respondents say they will quit their job if they aren’t allowed to continue working remotely.
  6. 62% of remote staff state that they will give preference to employers that offer remote work.
  7. 61% of remote workers would expect a pay raise if they were no longer allowed to work from home.
  8. LinkedIn reports that remote job postings increased more than 5 times during the pandemic
  9. If going back to the office is inevitable, how many days a week is best? 30% said 3 days with 25% saying 2 days.  Only 9% want to work onsite 4 days a week with 19% working onsite only 1 day a week.
  10. Remote Work is not equal.
    1. 41% struggled with group work with 46% of women saying it was a struggle versus 37% of men.
    2. 61% of leaders are thriving with remote work with 23 percentage points higher than those without decision-making authority.
    3. New employees, Gen-Z and front-line workers are more negatively impacted by working remotely with Gen-Z workers more likely to say they are struggling than older generations.
    4. Black and Latino workers in the US have struggled more (19%) with building relationships with their direct team compared to national average of 12%
  11. 67% crave more in-person time with their teams
  12. 53% of employees reported that their companies did not make significant attempts to help them collaborate remotely contributing to the challenges with collaboration.
  13. 42% of employees say they lack office essentials with one in 10 not having an adequate internet connection to do their job.
  14. A tough year made work more human.
    1. 18% have met their colleagues’ pets or families virtually.
    2. 17% have cried with a coworker with education workers reporting 20% and healthcare 23%.

It’s noteworthy that self-employed professionals report significantly higher satisfaction rates with remote work (92% vs. 81%) than the rest of the polled professionals, and particularly those in the education sphere (65%).

Extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace. Employees want control of where, when, and how they work, and expect businesses to provide options.

Remote Work – The Impact of Culture
RingCentral.com considered how to ensure remote work is sustainable. Similar to other studies showing what makes some organizations more resilient than others, Ring Central found that a connected culture is a key indicator or attribute that not only improves employee wellness, but also productivity.

“When employers actively build a “connected culture” for remote employees—which includes not just technology but a dedication to building interactivity—those employees report higher levels of productivity and well-being.”

Microsoft reports that the pandemic-driven isolation people feel in their personal lives is also happening at work.  Anonymized collaboration trends between billions of Outlook emails and Microsoft Teams meetings reveal a clear trend: the shift to remote shrunk our networks.

At the onset of the pandemic, interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished. This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. As a result, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic. And while our close networks are still stronger than they were before the pandemic, the trend shows even those close team interactions have started to diminish over time.

“Strong workplace networks are more than just a “nice to have.” They impact two things important to the bottom line: productivity and innovation. Specifically, people who said they felt the most productive in our survey also reported strong workplace relationships and feelings of inclusion at work.”

And, on the contrary, respondents who reported weaker workplace relationships were less likely to report thriving at activities that lead to innovation, like thinking strategically (–9 percentage points), collaborating or brainstorming with others (–10 percentage points), and proposing new ideas (–9 percentage points).

“Bumping into people in the office and grabbing lunch together may seem unrelated to the success of the organization, but they’re actually important moments where people get to know one another and build social capital,” says Microsoft Senior Principal Researcher Dr. Nancy Baym, who has studied social connections for decades. “They build trust, they discover common interests they didn’t know they had, and they spark ideas and conversations.”

Establishing a Hybrid Environment – Talent is Everywhere in a Hybrid Work World
USA Today published an article in February 2021 looking at what might be the “new normal” at the office.  Most companies are considering a hybrid approach – part time at home / part time at the office.  At a basic level, this seems like a reasonable approach.

“Most everyone is eager to get back to normal face-to-face conversations and interactions with work colleagues.”

 “Can’t beat the commute!”

 “Some have moved to places from which they now cannot easily come into the office.”

The Microsoft Work Trend Index found that the vast talent marketplace is one of the brightest outcomes from the shift to remote work. Nearly half (46 percent) of those surveyed are planning to move to a new location this year, indicating that people no longer have to leave their desk, house or community to expand their career opportunities.

This fundamental shift expands economic opportunity for individuals and enables organizations to build high-performing, diverse teams from a near-limitless talent pool.

“This shift is likely to stick, and it’s good for democratizing access to opportunity,” says LinkedIn Chief Economist Karin Kimbrough. “Companies in major cities can hire talent from underrepresented groups that may not have the means or desire to move to a big city. And in smaller cities, companies will now have access to talent that may have a different set of skills than they had before.”

A wider talent pool offers immense opportunity, especially as the pandemic subsides and childcare options are more readily available. Organizations will be able to hire the best and brightest from around the world, while people broaden their career and economic possibilities without compromising wellbeing and family priorities.

“Job switching intent has nearly doubled – 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer.  Businesses could lose an unprecedented number of employees.”

Rethink the Employee Experience
Taken together, these trends show that we are no longer bound to traditional notions of space and time when it comes to how, when, and where we work. It’s time to set aside our long-held assumptions that dictate that people need to work in the same place at the same time to be productive and have impact.

It’s a big mental shift — one that will require leaders and organizations to fundamentally reexamine and rewire their operating model. Shaking off the confines of 20th century thinking will not come easily, but we’ve identified five strategies for business leaders to begin to make the shift. It starts with embracing extreme flexibility.

Create a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility. The decisions leaders make today will impact your organization for years to come — from how you shape culture, to how you attract and retain talent, to how you respond to changes in the environment and future innovation. It’s a moment that requires a clear vision.

  • Every organization will need a plan that puts people at the center and encompasses policy, physical space, and technology.
  • In a world where ongoing disruption is part of the new normal. Leaders need to be prepared to respond to sudden changes.
  • Codify the answers to these questions to formulate a plan to empower people for extreme flexibility, then provide guidance to employees as you experiment and learn.
  • Establish policy and governance for flexible / hybrid working.
  • Rethink programs like talent acquisition and onboarding. Consider how a flexible / hybrid work strategy will impact where you source talent and manage compensation.
  • With over 40 percent of the workforce considering their next move, embracing extreme flexibility will be critical in retaining and attracting the top talent.
  • Flexible work is also an amazing opportunity for leaders to create a more diverse workforce, especially as the pandemic subsides and alleviates some at-home responsibilities.
  • Managers have an amplified role in supporting new hires and helping them grow their networks. Cohort-based onboarding programs can also be redesigned, for instance, to ensure they foster connection and community in a hybrid work world.

Every organization needs to consider the following critical questions:

  1. How are people doing and what do they need?
  2. Who will be able to work remotely?
  3. Who will need to come into the office, and for what amount of time?
  4. When people do focused work, where will they do it?
  5. What about collaborative work?

Take Advantage of the Opportunity to Change
The choices leaders make in this next phase of hybrid work will impact an organization’s ability to compete for the best talent, drive creativity and innovation, and create an inclusive work environment for years to come. It will require a significant mental shift to rewire your operating model to meet new employee expectations.

There’s no doubt that challenge and uncertainty lie ahead. But this moment also offers leaders a powerful opportunity to unlock new ways to achieve everything from wellbeing and work-life balance to an inclusive and authentic company culture — and experience better business outcomes along the way. If we embrace extreme flexibility, follow data insights, and continue listening closely to employee needs, together we can create a better future of work for everyone.

“Employees now expect to be able to work flexibly,” says Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner. “They feel they should be able to decided where and when they work. And if they are not given that choice, some will look for other employers that do offer that.”

“Flexibility over where they work will be viewed much like the way a 401k is viewed – as a basic component of the employment deal. Those who don’t offer it will have a harder time hiring and retaining employees.”

Watch the ICOR webinar on the same topic: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgj3aAGtZSfEO5Vf843BsdQ

Read more:

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2021/02/28/the-impact-of-the-virtual-work-from-home-workforce/?sh=2b840be28730
  2. https://www.greatplacetowork.com/resources/blog/remote-work-productivity-study-finds-surprising-reality-2-year-study
  3. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/whats-next-for-remote-work-an-analysis-of-2000-tasks-800-jobs-and-nine-countries
  4. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/study-productivity-shift-remote-work-covid-coronavirus.aspx
  5. https://review.chicagobooth.edu/strategy/2020/article/lindsey-lyman-what-we-re-losing-working-remotely
  6. https://www.fastcompany.com/90544975/4-major-long-term-psychological-effects-of-continued-remote-work
  7. https://www.livecareer.com/resources/careers/planning/is-remote-work-here-to-stay
  8. https://www.ringcentral.com/connected_culture_report.html
  9. https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/2021/02/01/covid-return-work-remote-irl-hybrid-environment-work/4268421001/
  10. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/hybrid-work
  11. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article250503769.html#storylink=cpy
  12. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2021/01/17/think-productivity-with-work-from-home-is-improving-think-again-heres-what-you-must-know/?sh=3b67c4d32d67

About the Author: As President of ICOR, Lynnda manages the day-to-day operations of ICOR University. ICOR University offers education and certification in business continuity management, crisis management & communications, data center management, emergency management, organizational resilience, social resilience, and supply chain risk management globally.

This article originally appeared in the ICOR Respondence Newsletter and is reprinted with permission here. To sign up for the ICOR Respondence Newsletter click here.

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