By Dorothy Rogers-Bullis
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that life requires flexibility. We’ve all had to make adjustments both large and small in order to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses in particular have had to pivot and in many cases reinvent the way they operate in an effort to keep their doors open and ensure employees and customers are safe.
For many companies, the initial solution was to allow certain employees to work from home. Of course, this wasn’t an option for some industries like restaurants, medical practices, and grocery stores. But for many office-based businesses, employers and employees managed to make working from home “work” through a combination of technology and ingenuity, and oftentimes, a whole lot of patience.
Meetings and conversations that used to be done face to face were moved to video conference. Workers figured out new platforms and software, working out the kinks as they went. They stacked up piles of books to get their computer at the right height, found their most flattering lighting, and tidied up their workspace to get it camera-ready.
It may not have been an ideal work-from-home set-up, but indeed, necessity is the mother of invention, so they made it work.
As the pandemic eventually comes to an end—and it will—what will businesses decide to do about employees working from home versus returning to the office? It is going to be more of a conundrum that some companies may recognize.
First of all, many employees have realized that they really enjoy working from home. The commute to their home office beats the heck out of sitting in traffic. Workers also have embraced the flexibility working from home typically provides—helping a child with a homework question, running a quick errand, or even wearing sweatpants to a video meeting.
Second, a lot of employees have managed to create very effective work-from-home set-ups over the past year-plus. Whether they have a dedicated home-office or have finagled one in another space in their house, workers have found that they can indeed be efficient and productive from the comfort of their home. And some aren’t quite ready to give that up in order to return to the office.
But there are tradeoffs for both the company and the worker created by working from home. For one, collaboration now has to be scheduled. There is no turning around in your chair for a quick brainstorm with a nearby colleague. There are no impromptu discussions in the breakroom or hallway. Businesses are realizing that this has resulted in an inadvertent work slow-down and has no doubt impacted productivity.
Whether they realize it or not, employees are also making sacrifices by working from home. First, a lack of face time with your manager (especially if other peers are working in-person) can be detrimental to your career progression. Another drawback of working from home that many people have discovered is that work-life boundaries get blurred. When work is always there, just down the hall in your home office, it can be difficult to ever truly “log off.”
In order to meet the demands of employees while achieving the goals of the company, businesses must accept that flexibility is once again going to be key if they want workers to return to the office. That flexibility can take many shapes. Perhaps it’s allowing employees to have a hybrid schedule, coming into the office a few days a week and working the remainder of the time from home.
Another key will be designing office spaces that appeal to workers—both current employees and the top-talent they hope to attract—and make them feel safe, enticing them back into the office. With unemployment low and businesses desperate to hire, workers hold the reins, so companies must make some accommodations in order to hire and retain the best employees.
We are seeing a number of trends emerge as businesses revamp their space in order to appeal to workers who may be apprehensive about returning to the office.
First, employees want more space. After a year of being told to maintain your social distance, no one wants to be elbow-to-elbow. Employees want bigger conference rooms so they can sit further apart (and leave the door open for air circulation). They want bigger and deeper desks so you can sit across from someone but not feel cramped.
Second, a lot of businesses believe they don’t need as much office space because of the hybrid employee trend. As a result, many are consolidating space. In the short-term, this saves money on rent, yes, but the tradeoff may be that the business doesn’t have room to grow. It is worth considering if a better long-term strategy would be to maintain their existing square footage and simply reconfigure the space to accommodate their current headcount in a more spacious layout.
Employers across the board are eager for their workers to return to the office, but some are agonizing about the right way to achieve this. In my experience, companies need to be decisive and confident in their decision while making accommodations within reason. Again, flexibility is the name of the game in today’s world.
Consider your business’s long-term growth goals. If your best people are leaving because they want a permanent work-from-home option, you will have to spend time and resources on rehiring. And the reality is that those new employees also will likely desire a hybrid schedule. If all an employee is asking for is a little flexibility, a better office, a bigger workspace, that is a small price to pay to keep your top talent happy.