To say that COVID-19 has reshaped working expectations would be dramatic -- but not, strictly speaking, incorrect.
Since the pandemic began spreading across America in March, employees have managed to build a new normal out of highly irregular, even impossible, circumstances. Faced with the need for social distancing and isolation, workers have rerouted their commutes to their kitchen counters and home offices, connected with their coworkers over digital channels, and continued to deliver top-tier work even while siloed and separated.
At the beginning of the pandemic, these measures were framed as fleeting and temporary -- expected to last only as long as the threat of disease transmission did. But now, as companies and employees grow increasingly comfortable with the prospect of working from home, some have begun to wonder whether America’s unplanned experiment with long-term remote work will usher in a new, hybridized work model.
In mid-summer, the Adecco Group, a staffing and HR firm, surveyed 8,000 office-based employees, managers, and executives across the USA, UK, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Australia about their working preferences post-COVID. The results were striking: nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of those surveyed said that they would prefer a mix of in-office and at-home work -- ideally, splitting their time almost equally between the two (49 percent remote, 51 percent in-office).
A desire to improve work-life balance appears to be a driving factor behind these preferences. Eighty percent of surveyed workers claimed that it would be essential to maintain a good work/life balance post-pandemic, and half said that their work/life balance has improved during the lockdown.
Employers are remarkably amenable to remote work, too -- 77 percent of surveyed C-level and executive managers claimed that allowing remote work and increasing workplace flexibility will generally benefit their businesses. Seventy-nine percent further noted that employees “will personally benefit from having increased flexibility around office and remote working.”
As one Adecco writer concluded in the report: “There is universal approval of flexible working, across business structures and geographies, across generations and parental status. It is a clear affirmation that the world is ready for ‘hybrid working’.”
But what is hybrid working, exactly? The term is new, but it generally refers to a working model where employees can divide their time between the office and home as-needed.
To borrow an explanation from McKinsey: “Talented people could live in the cities of their choice, which may have a lower cost of living and proximity to people and places they love, while they still work for leading organizations. A monthly trip to headquarters or a meeting with colleagues at a shared destination may suffice. This approach could be a winning proposition for both employers and employees, with profound effects on the quality of talent an organization can access and the cost of that talent.”
At first listen, this approach sounds like an ideal way to offer the best of both worlds and bridge the gap between pre-pandemic routines and post-pandemic preferences -- but is it?
The answer is somewhat complicated.
While hybridized work models do hold a tremendous amount of potential and appeal to current employee preferences, they will not succeed unless employers can address a few outstanding remote-working concerns that have arisen during COVID-19.
Take managers’ (lack of) support for remote employees as an example. According to the Adecco report referenced above, only two in five employees said their managers had “exceeded their expectations” by checking in on and supporting their mental health during the lockdown. For the managers’ part, over half said that “it was not easy to provide effective advice on mental wellbeing” to employees.
This lack of ability, the report concludes, points to a shortage of soft-skills training in the past and -- given that 28 percent of employees claimed that their mental health worsened during COVID-19 -- leads to a potential flaw in a long-term, hybridized work model. If managers are not equipped to support their team members from afar, they may not be able to identify when their employees start to struggle or provide guidance when they need it. This, in turn, may lead to lapsing productivity and lower morale.
Another issue at hand is the potential for declining gender diversity. As I’ve written before, a long-term shift to remote work may erode women’s presence -- and voices -- in corporate environments.
Previous studies have noted that while professional men with children and professional women without children tend to extend their working hours in remote environments, female employees with children usually do not, as they need to balance their domestic responsibilities with their working ones. Female employees’ need to address at-home obligations may also lead them to work from home more often, and remain removed from impromptu at-work decision-making.
Thus, women may be unfairly (and incorrectly) perceived as being more disengaged and less productive than their male and non-parent colleagues. Over time, this perception could erode working mothers’ abilities to progress into leadership roles and succeed in their careers.
To borrow a summation from one writer for the Harvard Business Review, “Unless companies learn to evaluate output, rewarding people for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on, a world of mostly remote work may increase organizations’ bias for rewarding those who are [physically] present, disproportionately harming women.”
There is no straightforward solution to these flaws, and, in all likelihood, employers will probably need to go through some trial and error when addressing them. However, a few fixes have already been suggested.
According to research from Adecco, over two-thirds of employees (69 percent) believe that employee contracts should be rewritten to be more deliverable- and task-based. Thus, an employee in a flexible model may be able to achieve a better work-life balance by setting their own schedule and changing their focus to improving the business instead of logging hours. This approach will need fine-tuning and experimentation, to be sure -- but by making employee contribution the priority, it may lessen the risks of an in-office bias.
Above all else, employers need to develop strategies to support employees wherever they may choose to work. As one writer for Adecco puts the matter: “Rather than applying old models and then blaming the shift to remote work when teams fail, companies and leaders must be deliberate in how they set up the new working structures, communication cadence, and team dynamics, and take accountability for actively framing the new model of work. Taking time to invest in building a stronger set of soft skills will be paramount.”
Hybridized work models are promising, to be sure -- but employers cannot leap into them without thinking. Thorough planning and soft-skills training must come first; otherwise, avoidable miscommunications and poor policies may undermine the benefits provided by flexible working.