On March 13, 2020, the governor of Connecticut announced that as of 4PM, Monday, March 16, all non-essential businesses would be closed, and employees would have to work from home.
There were pros and cons, not the least of which was getting thrown into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons. For the employee, challenges included lack of space, balancing multiple demands, isolation, and general anxiety. Benefits included no commute, increased flexibility, personal safety, and money saved on gas and clothes. Businesses were able to continue operating with relatively minimal disruption, maintain or improve productivity, experience reduced absenteeism due to weather and/or symptoms that would normally require an employee to take a full day off, and retain a full workforce. Their challenges involved adjusting to managing remotely, developing better ways to measure productivity, providing the required technological resources, a significantly increased need for effective communication, and heightened employee stress.
A year and a half later, continuous change and new challenges are our reality. (I have eschewed the term “New Normal”. The crazy train left that station a long time ago.) As businesses struggle with the question of whether to return to completely in-office, fully remote, or a custom hybrid, employees are also considering their choices and their options.
There are two key factors in play. For businesses, the number one issue is productivity. For employees, their primary concern is what will best fit their personal and professional needs. The choices available to these people will impact businesses’ ability to attract, motivate and retain high-value employees.
Several studies over the past months show productivity while working remotely is better than working 100% in an office setting. On average, those who work remotely spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive, work one more day a week, and are 47% more productive. Businesses that experienced improved productivity were more likely to have established clear expectations and measurable results, with reduced dependence on personal observation. Other success factors included regular communication and wellness check-ins.
Great Place to Work compared employee productivity from March to August of 2020, the first six months of stay-at-home orders, to the same six-month stretch in 2019. Remote work productivity was stable or increased when working remotely from home, according to the 2-year study of 800,000 employees in Fortune 500 companies. Their study also indicated that the same key factors influence both in-person and remote work productivity: company culture and leadership.
Prodoscore, a leader in employee visibility software, announced new proprietary data about remote worker productivity and general work trends since the sudden move to remote workforces began in March. At a high level, the data showed a 47% productivity increase in 2020.
Two significant factors that negatively impacted remote work productivity were meetings and emails. According to a Harvard Business Review study, though the average meeting was 20% shorter, people attended 20% more meetings and sent 5.2% more emails. There was a general sense of being in front of Zoom nonstop. Zoom Fatigue became a real thing- difficulty focusing and concentrating, forgetfulness, confusion, headaches, and vision issues being the most common effects. To get their actual work done, the average workday increased by 8.2%, or 48.5 minutes. About 8.3% more emails were sent after normal business hours.
Businesses that tracked productivity found that it improved in the second six months of lockdown, which they attribute to adjustments made as both employers and employees developed better strategies and became more comfortable with remote work. With little forewarning, the learning process was 100% on-the-job.
While productivity may be the key metric for businesses, it is not the only one where employers can benefit from WFH flexibility. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that employers can save over $11,000 per year per each 50% remote employee. The savings come from the lower cost of office space, increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and less turnover.
Attracting, Motivating and Retaining High-Value Employees
People want options. They’ve experienced the benefits of remote work, and many aren’t willing to go back to the way things were.
A May 2021 survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. For Millennials and Gen Z’ers, or Globals, who represent about 60% of the workforce, the number is even higher. A Gallup poll indicates that half of all Millennials and Globals would quit for a more flexible job.
SHRM says 52% of workers want to stay 100% remote, and 35% would accept a pay cut if that’s what it takes to keep working from home.
While businesses struggle to find the right balance, workers are exploring their options. There are a variety of reasons why many workers prefer working from home or a hybrid option. Safety is a major issue. Employees express on-going concerns about masks, social distancing and vaccinations, such as asking non-vaccinated people to wear masks but not requiring or enforcing it. Not knowing who is or isn’t vaccinated increases fears and leads to avoiding others, undercutting one of the key arguments for returning to work. While the EEOC has determined that companies can require vaccinations if they comply with reasonable accommodation provisions of the ADA and other EEO considerations (EEOC Technical Assistance, 5/28/21), most businesses currently are making vaccinations optional. Recent exceptions include Tyson Foods, Microsoft, Google and Disney, who are now requiring vaccines.
Like businesses, employees working from home save money. Another Global Analytics report estimates savings for employees in the $2,500 to $4,000 per year range. This is due to lowered food costs, fuel costs, parking, car maintenance and childcare expenses.
Millennials and Globals took advantage of the flexibility of remote work to move to more affordable places to live. Real estate studies indicate an outward migration from New York City and California to less expensive locales. Raleigh, NC and Austin, TX are among those locations experiencing a boom in young, talented workers.
While some businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach, others are looking for ways to mitigate the risk of losing talent who want flexibility.
Not all workers want to work exclusively from home; in fact, some want to return to the office full-time. Not all jobs lend themselves to remote work. Rather than take an all-or-nothing stand, businesses appear to be coalescing around a hybrid approach, customized for their needs.
90% of companies expect a “hybrid” workforce that combines in-office and remote employees, according to a National Association of Business Economists January 29291 Business Conditions Survey. But not everyone agrees. A company’s culture and priorities influence their decisions.
Jamie Dimon wants all employees back at the office. “Working from home does not work for everyone, especially those who want ‘to hustle,’” said JPMorgan Chase & Co’s chief executive in May. At the other end of the spectrum, companies that include Dropbox and Basecamp will opt for a fully or nearly full remote workplace.
Opting for flexibility, companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google are looking at work in new ways, seeking to develop a model that draws on the benefits of both in-person and remote work. Google is currently looking at three days in-office and two days wherever the employee works best.
“I see the future as being more flexible,” said Alphabet (Google) CEO Sundar Pichai. “We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new so we don’t see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility and more hybrid models.”
As we approach Labor Day, both businesses and employees face choices and changes. It’s a fluid process that will require research, reassessment, and review, along with the ability and willingness to be creative and inventive as the game continues to change.
NEXT ISSUE: Best practices for employers to make flexible work options successful.