Jeanne Meister is Executive Vice President of Executive Networks, an HR peer community for human resource leaders working in global 1,000 companies. Jeanne is also a regular contributor to Forbes and author of the “The 2023 Future of Working and Learning Report” a research survey of 1,301 HR leaders, business leaders, knowledge workers and frontline workers across North America, India, and Europe.
As HR professionals, we have a once in a generation opportunity to take a leadership role in designing new ways of working. Since the pandemic, we have seen that working nine to five in-the-office is dead. Our long-standing expectations of going to the office, “to do our work,” and going to off-sites to “network with colleagues,” has been turned on its head. And never did employers have to justify why one should be present in the office and what types of work would ideally happen there.
The world of work is changed forever. In our “The 2023 Future of Working and Learning” survey, conducted among a global sample of 1,300 HR leaders, business leaders, knowledge workers and frontline workers, about half of knowledge workers (46%) report that their companies are not doing anything to make it worthwhile to commute to the office. This highlights a key workplace tension I am seeing; workers view going to the office as a choice they can make while leaders see this as a challenge to be dealt with.
The data on office occupancy is compelling. Before the pandemic, 95% of offices were occupied. Today that number is closer to 47%. Is the balance of power shifting toward employees as employers are under pressure to prove returns in a tough economic climate? According to a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 72.5% of private-sector establishments surveyed from August 1 to September 30, 2022 had little to no telework. That’s a big decrease from 2021, when just 60.1% of establishments surveyed from July to September 2021 reported little to no telework.
But remote or telework, as it is called by BLS, is not one size fits all approach to working. Certain industries lend themselves to project/remote work like Information Technologies and Professional services while retail and hospitality do not.
Our research, The 2023 Future of Working and Learning Report, conducted among 1,301 HR leaders Business Leaders, Knowledge workers and Frontline workers found offering “office perks,” like free lunches, access to gym or yoga classes is not the answer. Employees want their employer to be clear about the purpose of the office and to identify which job roles are best suited to remote or hybrid working.
As companies grapple with returning to the office, they must realize the conversation is much more than deciding which days employees return to the office, is it Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday or Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday? That misses the point of what we have been going through over the past three years.
Leaders need to make coming to the office more intentional and “commute worthy”. This will require employers to be clear on why and how working in the office can optimize their performance in their current job role while providing flexibility. Employers also need to ensure equal opportunity for advancement and development, no matter where the work gets done. This last point hit home when our 2023 Future of Working and Learning research found a majority of senior HR leaders (71%) and senior business leaders (62%) agree that there’s likely a “proximity bias” against remote/hybrid workers, making it difficult for those working off-site to get ahead in their careers.
In addition to making the office “commute worthy”, employers need to conduct research on the flexibility options desired by workers. Our latest research found the most desired flexibility option is access to a 4-day work week with no pay reduction. This is desired by 69% of knowledge workers and 56% of front-line workers, but is currently only offered to 16% and 29%, respectively.
The goal is to set clear principles for success, rather than mandate policies. These principles need to ensure inclusivity by providing career development and advancement opportunities to all employees, regardless of where they work.
Most of all, companies must recognize the inherent push and pull of workers desiring flexibility in when and where they work and leaders wanting no impact on their job performance.
Leaders can start taking a proactive role by asking such questions as:
- How can our company optimize flexibility in work practices while maintaining performance levels?
- What is the new role and purpose of the office?
- What are we doing to listen to our employee needs for flexibility and what do they see as the benefits of returning to the office?
- What job roles are best performed primarily in the office?
- How can you provide principles for success working remotely/hybrid rather than mandates?
- How can we prepare our frontline managers to have meaningful conversations with our workers about their needs for flexibility while maintaining performance levels?
While some leaders continue to mandate returning to the office, the better approach is to align your return to office approach with your culture and values, make coming to the office purposeful and have a clear communications strategy on who can be successful as a remote and hybrid worker and which job roles are best suited for remote/hybrid work. Over the last three years we have seen workers demand and expect to work remotely if their job is suited for this. In fact, a survey conducted by ZipRecruiter finds job seekers would take a 14 % pay cut to work remotely. There is no turning back on new ways of working, even as a recession looms.