IBM followed Yahoo in ending the option to work remotely across their organization…in 2017. How are companies and employees handling the transition in work location brought about by mass vaccination, or, dare we say, the end of the pandemic?
As of March 29, 2021 24.2% of employees in ten major U.S. cities were going into their offices. Eighty thousand New York City municipal office workers returned to their offices on May 3. Even tech giant Microsoft has employees returning to headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Seventy nine percent of respondents in a LiveCareer.com survey said they recognize that their companies plan on a return to on-site work. But 61% want the option to work remotely indefinitely. In fact, 29% say they will quit their job if the option to work remotely with their current employer is taken away. What is driving this decision-making on both sides?
According to the American Psychological Association 49% of adults feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions. Even 48% of those who are vaccinated feel uncomfortable about face-to-face contact. They question how long the vaccines are effective and if and when boosters will be available.
Companies are trying to address these concerns by ramping up deep cleaning and sanitation, and creating innovative workspace layouts and schedules. Flexibility on travel requirements are a big concern. Companies have to be sensitive to employees concern about risk and be clear in what their expectations are and what their commitment is to keeping their employees safe. Effectively re-acclimating an onsite workforce through careful, thorough communication is essential.
A January 2021 survey by PWC said that 83% of employers found giving employees the option to work remotely a success for their company. That is a 10% increase from a June 2020 survey. LiveCareer.com’s survey said 64% of employees loved the flexibility working from home provided them and 44% liked the improved work-life balance. These were both contributing factors to 29% saying they were more productive working at home. Employers recognize the productivity improvement but are concerned about burnout from an inability to disconnect from work: sending emails at 10 at night and 1:00 in the morning as examples.
A recent Boston Consulting Group study on remote work said, “Employees satisfied with social connectivity are more likely to maintain or improve productivity on collaborative tasks.” Good work collaboration requires strong human connections. Companies were able to transition quickly to work from home because of years of shared experience among employees, but after a year of remote work there is a slow decay of these connections. A Gallup survey said remote workers are 7% less likely to see their connection to the mission of the company. Wharton professor, Adam Grant, says virtual work has “benefits for productivity…but the big risks are collaboration and culture.”
A Harvard study found that researchers who worked in close physical proximity produced more impactful papers. Steve Jobs was obsessed with creating unplanned meetings, often called the water cooler effect on innovation. In 2013 the CFO of Google was asked how many people telecommute to google and his answer was, “As few as possible.” Working together is viewed as the key to innovation. “It turns out that the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain,” says San Francisco State University professor John Sullivan.
Sean Bisceglia, CEO of Curion, a consumer product research and insights company of 350 employees says, “I am super passionate to get everyone back. What we are really missing is that creativity, that spontaneity and the ingenuity of talking to your teammates face-to-face. The whole creativity has kind of been gutted without people being together.”
Fifty-five percent of workers want to work remotely at least three days a week. Sixty-eight percent of executives want employees in the office at least three days a week. Resolving that spread will be essential for employers moving out of the pandemic work from home focus. Employees will have to decide how important not going in the office is to them.