When the COVID19 pandemic hit hard in March 2020, most companies that could went fully remote. For many businesses, this was the first time their teams worked from home. To say it was a big adjustment is an understatement, but companies learned to adapt and change. Now, some companies are even wondering why they didn’t let employees work from home earlier.
While there were new challenges (tech tools, endless Zoom calls, the emotional stress of a pandemic, etc), many employees and managers alike found themselves adjusting to the newfound flexibility of work-from-home life. Now, over a year later, it’s finally time for the big question: should businesses require employees to return to the office post-pandemic?
There are pros and cons to staying remote and going back to the office. On one hand, many employees like the option of working in a traditional office. Not only does this mean teams are working closely together, but it’s easier to stay on track for big projects. On the other hand, working from home means fewer office expenses, and employees cut down on commuting time. Additionally, a virtual workforce means a larger talent pool, and this could be a big perk for competitive industries.
Ultimately, it’s up to each individual company to determine what’s right for them. To guide the process, here are the key things to think about when asking whether managers should require employees to return to the office. Workplace culture is undeniably changed in a post-pandemic world. It’s only normal to expect different solutions to old problems.
What Do Employees Really Want?
First, it’s important to note that leaders are busy asking themselves what employees want when they should be asking someone else: their employees. To get a simple, clear-cut answer about whether you should have employees come back to the office, ask them directly. They’ve been the ones working from home for the past year. They know how well these changes suit their working style and needs.
According to current studies, a reported 65% of employees want to work remotely full-time after the pandemic. Another 35% would prefer a hybrid environment with both in-office and remote work. Why is working from home so appealing? Employees cite the following benefits:
- Work-life balance: When employees work from home, they feel they are better in control of their schedule and time.
- Family: During the pandemic, many parents and caretakers took on greater responsibility within the home. Working from home makes these responsibilities easier to balance.
- Commute: With the average American commuting 27 minutes each way, employees simply want this time back in their day.
- Fewer distractions: Working from home also can mean fewer office distractions and time-wasters.
- Productivity: While many employers believe the opposite, remote work is proven to be more effective. According to a Stanford study, work from home increased productivity overall by 13%.
For many employees, working from home drastically improved their way of life. For others, they’d prefer to return to a more traditional office environment. The only way to know how your employees feel is to ask them directly. When lines of communication are open, you create a culture of openness and understanding.
How to Balance Long-Term Remote Work
Next, how do you handle a long-term remote team? If your employees vote for a remote office, what are the next steps to take? While many adjustments were made during the pandemic, you might face even more changes when considering a long-term switch to remote work or hybrid work.
For some leaders, this might be the first time they’re managing a remote team. This leads to a lot of outdated and ineffective expectations. To combat this, it’s important to recognize the true meaning of accountability. Accountability, contrary to many managers’ belief, is not seeing someone physically at their desk. It’s about seeing results and hitting benchmarks. When you adjust your expectations, it’s easier to balance long-term remote work at scale.
With that in mind, how do managers shift focus to match the modern world of remote work?
- Expectations: Set expectations early on. These boundaries and objectives model the way employees should work, and they’re a way to make sure everyone is on the same page. For example, you could ask your employees to be online and available during working hours with a weekly check-in to make sure they’re on track.
- Flexible: While setting clear expectations is an important first step, you also must be flexible. Some employees might work better in the morning, for example, and take the afternoon off to be with their kids. As long as they’re meeting deadlines and getting the right hours in, it shouldn’t matter how they choose to structure their day.
- Progress: Make sure you have a clear, efficient way to track your employees’ progress. A project management tool is one option, but you could also check-in (virtually) with employees one-on-one on a regular basis.
- Communication: Above all, value communication with your remote staff. Make it clear that management is always available to help via email, video call, and so on.
Working remotely very much can resemble working in an office. Employees still communicate and collaborate only there is a greater reliance on digital tools than ever before. Because this takes adjusting from management and employees alike, give your team the freedom they need to figure out their structure.
Making the Return to the Office
On the other end of the spectrum, what if management decides it’s best to return to the office? While remote work is great in some instances, it’s not one-size-fits-all. There are some industries and jobs that are more efficient in-person. If you truly believe your team needs to be in person, you can still adjust to make your employees feel more comfortable.
Consider the aspects of remote culture that your employees enjoyed best. How can these changes fit your current office environment? For example, you could offer flexible working hours for your employees. They might come to the office 7 to 3 vs. 9 to 5. This helps them beat commuting traffic, and they can be home for dinnertime with their families.
Many employers are creating a hybrid solution for office work. They’re allowing employees to work from home more frequently, whether it’s a few days each week or for half-days. In addition, some companies are relaxing their dress code, making it possible to wear more casual work attire. It’s all about finding your employees’ comfort level and meeting them where they are.
All of these changes might seem minor, but they add up to a big difference for employees. Though many companies would like to pretend the pandemic didn’t happen and go back to “normal,” there’s no denying its impact on company culture. There’s no turning back, and we’ve reached a tipping point for remote work.
With companies like Zillow, Facebook, and Twitter determining that they don’t need to return to the office long-term, the world is changing fast. In a global survey, 80% of CEOs said they expect to have a larger remote workforce after the pandemic. While some companies are returning to the office or adapting a hybrid solution, big cultural changes are on the horizon.
Is Remote Work Right for Your Team?
Last but not least, how do you know if remote work is truly right for your team? In reality, it’s not for everyone. While it’s true remote work is proven to be more productive most of the time, there are still many businesses that benefit from an in-person environment.
To determine what’s right for you, start by talking to your employees. Once you understand their perspective, ask yourself questions about your company’s needs and goals. These questions below reveal whether you’re moving in the right direction:
- How will going fully remote improve your business?
- How will going fully remote hurt your office?
- Have your productivity levels changed during the pandemic?
- Is fully remote work maintainable long-term?
- Can you provide your clients with the same level of service remotely?
- What do your employees want?
These insightful questions are the best way to guide your next steps. It’s important to note that your decision doesn’t have to be set in stone. It’s fine to slowly return to the office, and it’s okay to slowly transition to remote work long-term. In fact, the more agile and flexible you are, the better. Just like at the beginning of the pandemic, you have to make changes to succeed.
Making a Long-Term Plan
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer about whether or not to send employees back to the office. As long as you’re taking the needs of your employees into account, you’re using a winning strategy. It’s true that many businesses have benefited by going fully remote during the pandemic. It’s also true that others continue to face challenges from not being in person.
Managers must adapt to a solution that works for them. This doesn’t mean choosing a black or white solution. Sometimes it’s best to meet in the middle with a hybrid work environment. Not all of your employees are the same, and their working styles aren’t the same either.
As a leader, regardless of your level, it’s your role to make sure your employees’ needs are met as best as possible. Whether you meet these needs virtually or in person is entirely up to you. The only certainty is that change is coming to the workplace after the pandemic, and companies need to adapt to changing expectations.