Once upon a time, I dedicated over two hours each weekday commuting to and from my office in Boston. Every day, I left my house before anyone in my family was awake. I rarely got to participate in dropping off or picking up my son from day care. And when I wasn’t commuting to the office, I was on a plane traveling for work. While I enjoyed spending time with my family on weekends, I couldn’t help but feel saddened by what I was missing out on during the week—including building important ties with my family and our community.
Fortunately, several years ago I made a career change that gave me a great deal of flexibility and allowed me to feel much more present in my own life. I desperately missed my friends and former colleagues from my city life, but I felt so much more connected to my family. My career ambitions hadn’t ebbed—I still wanted to do fulfilling and impactful work. But I also wanted to be a great mom. Working from home, I found I could do both, though I did miss the people that I interacted with on a daily basis for the past decade.
My search for better work-life integration started well before COVID-19. However, I’ve come to appreciate the perks of working from home even more during pandemic life. And I’m not alone. In a recent PwC survey, 79% of employees reported remote work has successfully allowed them to manage family life with work. Based on their data, PwC calls remote work during the pandemic “an overwhelming success for both employees and employers.”1
Much has been written in the press about the various approaches organizations are taking to returning to the workplace and what employees might anticipate when they return. Employees are looking at offices as spaces to collaborate, use equipment, meet with others, and learn and grow. Employers are taking a slightly different view about the office, seeing it as a way to increase productivity and build and sustain culture, in addition to serving as a place for employees to meet and collaborate. While views differ, one thing is certain: Expectations have shifted tremendously on a collective scale. For organizations to get the most from their investments in their people and their office spaces, they’ll need to harness this opportunity to reimagine the work experience for the better. This is how they can help their people and their organization thrive.
However your organization is approaching its return-to-workplace plans, employees want and need to hear from leaders directly and frequently. Anxiety about what to expect, as well as nervousness about change, is extremely high. To ensure you’re supporting your people, ground your messaging in your values and goals. It’s important that you address why you’ve taken the approach you have—and explain how that ties back to your values. Articulating the philosophy guiding your return-to-workplace strategy will help employees understand why certain decisions have been made. It will also set the tone for expectations going forward. Leaders can address what’s changing and why through an organization-wide announcement and then reiterate this messaging in town hall meetings and provide detailed answers to anticipated frequently asked questions. Additionally, managers will need thorough training on how to implement and oversee new policies, so that all types of arrangements are treated equitably and consistently.
To ensure your new policies are met with success, you’ll want to:
Also, benefit programs and resources will continue to be instrumental in helping people continue to perform in any environment.
As you make decisions about schedules and expectations for how and when people should use your worksite, be sure to incorporate how your people are thinking and feeling about returning. Online focus groups are easy to conduct and can give you instantaneous feedback about what employees are looking forward to and what they’re concerned about. We love them because they’re both easy to implement and fun to participate in. Plus, feedback is aggregated in real time—no more waiting for the results to get collated and synthesized—and questions can be adjusted on the fly. This can help you design policies to bridge the gap between employer and employee priorities, so everyone gets the most out of time spent together. And don’t consider feedback a one-and-done exercise. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that change is constant, and how we feel can ebb and flow with the highs and lows of the environment around us.
Managing our well-being—physical, emotional, financial, and social—has been a major focus for employers and employees alike during the pandemic. This trend will continue as our working life shifts yet again post-pandemic. Let your employees know how you’re building well-being into your workplace—what positive shifts are you making to layouts, workspaces, gathering spaces, and more? If your people have more choice about where, when, and how they work (and you want to encourage them to return), what can you do to help maximize their time spent in the office?
As your workforce continues to recover from COVID-19, you’ll want to continue to promote benefits and resources that can help them remain healthy, combat burnout, rebuild their finances, and reengage with others. Continuously remind people of the ways you support holistic well-being, and give them the space and leeway they need to incorporate well-being practices into new routines.
The key to making all working arrangements a success—remote, in-person, hybrid, flexible—is to ensure managers receive robust training, so that policies are implemented fairly and equitably. Explain new policies, convey general guidelines, share best practices in oversight, and outline common scenarios and how managers should respond. Setting clear expectations for managers will help ensure a consistent experience for employees and allay their concerns about unequal treatment. Employees don’t want to feel like they’re missing out on training, development opportunities, or time spent with managers because they’ve chosen to work a hybrid schedule or compressed work week. (Remember the episode of Friends where Rachel takes up smoking with her boss so as not to feel left out?) Plus, you’ll want to ensure that all employees receive equal opportunities for growth and advancement regardless of their workspace or schedule.
As we learned at the outset of the pandemic, frequent, regular communication from leadership engenders trust. Managers, too, play a key role in affirming policies and gathering employee sentiment. Communication should continue to be a two-way dialogue. Organizations that emerge from COVID-19 more resilient and poised for future success are those that understand the need to listen and adapt to employee needs going forward.
After a year and a half of social isolation, there is a lot to be gained from bringing people together again. I know I’m reconsidering returning to an office, at some frequency, after four years of being away. I’m craving connection with colleagues (past and present), but I’m also not willing to abandon the precious connections I’ve built with my kids’ worlds. I’d never consider going back to the way things were, but I’m also excited about the possibilities of what work could look like going forward.
We're proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk.
1“It’s Time to Reimagine Where and How Work Will Get Done,” PwC U.S. Remote Work Survey, January 12, 2021. pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html.
Megan Yost, SVP Engagement Strategist, is a recognized thought leader in benefits communications, particularly in the areas of retirement, financial wellness, and employee engagement.