If your organization sent people home at the beginning of the pandemic – as 70% of the economy did – the return plans have probably changed a dozen times. Confusion remains for those organizations which have not fully returned to work.

Less than 20% of all employees worked from home (WFH) or remotely when the pandemic hit. Organizations reacted swiftly. Currently nearly 50% are still working from home. Many who do now are college graduates in white-collar jobs. Many more employees lost their jobs as retail, hospitality, and travel basically closed down. Women in all occupations were particularly hard-hit, especially as elder and child care options closed down too. Lower income and minorities were hit harder than Whites.

Companies say that productivity of WFH/remote workers is about equal to past productivity now. However, studies show that such workers are averaging three additional work hours per day. Worse, 65% of such employees feel less connected to their work and coworkers. This is usually a predictor of turnover increasing.

A recent McKinsey survey of CEOs indicates that going forward 40% expect employees will be on-site 21-50% of the workweek and another 40% expect 51-80% on-site time. Yet surveys of workers show almost a third want to work remotely full-time.

Employees are confused and often upset as well. Many, especially in big tech, felt promises were made that they could work remotely long-term. Others still do not have child or elder care options or worry about health issues. Some feel that their needs and concerns are being ignored in any planning. Others faced sudden, unexpected demands to return to the work site with little notice. Two-thirds of employees surveyed say they have not had any information on return plans or only vague statements.

Priority One: Communications

At each stage of returning to the work site, organizations need to be communicating what is planned, what health and safety precautions are involved, and what options an employee has. Multiple communications from the founder or CEO are vital. If there are un-resolved issues, say so and say when decisions are expected.

If you have to change a plan, get the info out quick that you are doing so and keep communicating as you develop new plans. This can help reduce the uncertainty your employees feel and increase retention. Once you have a new plan, give as much advance notice as possible. People will need time to become comfortable returning and many will need to make new arrangements related to personal/family needs.

Priority Two: Considering a Remote or Hybrid Work Plan

Unless you did not allow WFH/remote work previously, you may have such a plan. It probably is not enough now. Create a plan. One study shows nearly a quarter of employees moved away or further from the work site during the pandemic. Many felt they had an explicit or implicit promise of on-going remote work options beyond the end of the pandemic. The lack of clear plans tells employees you do care for their needs or ideas. Your plan needs to be clear about which jobs, if any, can be done from home or remotely.

If you plan a hybrid system, start with the end in mind. What are your goals? Why should people be in the office? Why should they be allowed to work elsewhere? If not in the office, do they need to come to the work site or could they be fully remote – located anywhere? Usually there needs to be clear rules about who works where when. Studies show that hybrid options are common in many plans, yet less than a third of employers have completed such a plan. You need to be clear about whether you will have core days or core hours and how people will be selected for WFH days.

Increasing research indicates it may be smarter for the employer to define the options than let employees choose. There are concerns about creating two groups of employees and the disconnect each can feel from the other. There are questions about the impact on diversity as well.

It is important to take your thinking about your organizational needs deeper to understand both your current employees and practices. So often we read about the most common reasons for one side or the other but do not think as clearly about our own issues and goals. And your other personnel processes – performance assessments, promotions, and hiring – will need to be assessed as well. In the past, people who worked from home regularly or full-time were significantly less likely to get pay raises and promotions.

Common reasons to be on-site:

  • Better work-unit or group collaboration
  • Helps establish and maintain ‘normal’ work hours
  • Increases informal information exchanges and learning
  • Can improve mentoring and management
  • Offers separation of ‘work’ from home life
  • Improves professional relationship options
  • Normally increases ties to the organization

Common reasons to WFH or remotely:

  • Increased flexibility, especially for family obligations
  • No commute time
  • Lessens distractions for some employees
  • May reduce real estate costs for employers
  • May reduce payroll costs if remote workers are in lower pay areas.

Your decisions should be based on business needs but if you can offer any flexibility, it is likely to be well-received.  Just make sure that reasons for allowing flexible hours, days, or locations and the jobs that are covered by such options are clearly explained.   

Priority Three: Policy and Practices

If you decide to allow employees to work from home, you need a policy and agreement on what is allowed. This policy should cover:

  • Which positions may be filled by remote workers
  • Which positions may be filled by WFH or hybrid options
  • What requirements you have for their remote or WFH office
  • What the schedule of work hours is to be
  • What the requirements are for responses to emails/calls/texts
  • Requirements to safeguard information and equipment
  • Access to company IT or other systems and security rules
  • Legal requirements, such as meals and breaks for non-exempt employees
  • Restrictions, such as no business meetings in a home setting
  • Any allowances or stipends you offer, such as for equipment or communications
  • Business travel and expenses coverage
  • Information on reporting injuries (under Workers Compensation)

The agreement should state all the aspects of the job expectations for each individual and their agreement to the policy.

Other policies and practices may need to be revised as well so look at them all.

Priority Four: Keep the “Good Stuff”

Do you know that the four-day work week was touted in a January Life magazine cover story as the wave of the future and 50 companies were recognized for success using that system? One CEO said that he expected 95% of the companies in the US to be using it within five years. This effort was forced on you by the pandemic but what can you learn from it that might be helpful in attracting, developing, and retaining employees going forward.

You may have discovered the value of limiting meetings and meeting times – keep those practices. The same is true of having meeting free days – often Mondays or Fridays, and of limiting off-hours communications. I learned early to tell my staff to ignore emails out of hours – now you can set most email systems to send them at a later time if you, like me, tend to write them when you think of something. Consider surveying your staff for other such new practices that they liked and being sure you maintain those.

If you realized your performance management process was not working well under this stress, now is also the time to fix it.

Pay some extra attention to your younger employees. Starting a first or second job within a few months before or during the pandemic has reduced their ability to connect with other employees, to find out the informal mechanisms in your organization, and to build support and mentoring into their work.

The surveys and articles on this transition to the so-called ‘new normal’ are often contradictory. If you read many, you may be expecting an epic clash between employees and employers and massive number of people quitting their jobs with no-one to replace them. I do not think it will be an apocalypse.  Your ability to pay attention to what makes the most sense for your organization now, what to keep and what to change, and how to keep communications flowing are vital. Resources and support are available – take advantage of them. Take small steps forward. Move with optimism.