How Leaders Can Balance Working from Home and Returning to Work

William B. Horne


September 15, 2020

Business leaders have the responsibility to make every decision with thorough consideration for both their employees and their organization. Anticipating and managing risk is a critical component of this role, and leading business operations through the pandemic has proved to be no easy feat. With re-openings ramping up, rigorous workplace safety requirements are a new reality for the foreseeable future. From a risk management perspective, employers have had to carefully analyze the best approach for returning to the office, what their new workplaces will look like, and the optimal strategy for spearheading a sustainable organization in today’s environment. In doing so, employers must prioritize the well-being of their teams above anything else.

As a starting point for a re-opening strategy, Quovant conducted an internal poll in May to gather insight from employees on their back-to-work preferences, and plans to conduct a follow-up. Quovant sought to gain more insight on the following:

  • How employees have managed the last couple of months—productivity rates, employee satisfaction, etc.
  • When and how they want to begin working in the office again.
  • More details from those who prefer the flexibility of working remotely or do not feel safe returning to a physical setting until a vaccine is widely available.

When asked if they would like to return to the office full-time when stay-at-home orders were lifted, about 58% of respondents said no. Reasons ranged from health safety concerns to more flexible scheduling and increased productivity, especially since they no longer have long commutes.

In fact, the most common reason was productivity-related, as most respondents said they are more productive when working from home. Employees cited distracting aspects of the office environment, such as chatty co-workers, comfort, commutes that take valuable time, and the need to communicate with family members throughout the day rather than being able to coordinate family needs more easily from home. These respondents made up more than half (57%) of those who do not want to return to the office at this time.

Of those who said health safety concerns were their main motivator to continue working remotely, they widely noted they were not comfortable returning to the office until a vaccine was available, that they or a family member are immunocompromised, or that staying home will allow them to interact with loved ones and family more safely. These respondents made up just over half (51%) of those who do not want to return to the office.

Miscellaneous reasons noted for preferring to work from home included decreased wear and tear on their vehicles, less money spent on gas, the ability to more easily coordinate childcare, and being home for their pets.

On the other hand, about 42% said they would like to return to the office. However, most of these respondents expressed that they did not want to return to the office full-time immediately, but instead prefer to come in one or two days a week. Nearly all of these respondents cited in-person interaction and collaboration as their top reason for preferring to work from the office, as it positively affects their morale and productivity. Other reasons for wanting to return to the office included less technological roadblocks, a more conducive working environment, and an aversion to virtual meetings and increased phone calls.

A Possible Solution

Until the risks of COVID-19 are minimized as much as possible and it is safe for all employees to return to the office, employers may instate long-term remote work approaches. Companies may encourage employees to continue working from home for the foreseeable future, but institute safety precautions for the smaller number who request to come in. This includes requiring masks, additional sanitization practices, an emphasis on handwashing, and social distancing measures, including requiring employees to make appointments to use the office space.

Through this strategy, companies can learn about what they can accomplish in this new environment, especially how they can balance resources with more employees working remotely long-term. The last few months have shown which team members and departments can function sufficiently from home, contrary to what we might have assumed. The benefits of working from home and the challenges that come with it are not for everyone.

To avoid hiccups and maintain transparency, companies can implement a time-tracking tool that allows them to comprehensively review team members’ work, time and productivity as they operate remotely. This added level of support can help leadership teams adjust their management strategies accordingly and can ease the transition. This phase can also allow companies to re-evaluate their office space, organizational structure and the assets they need to run an efficient and productive business.

Lessons Learned

Overall, tapping into their team’s preferences, work styles, and personal/professional needs can provided companies with valuable insights to make better leadership decisions. Collecting this information can not only give management teams an inside look at the employee perspective, but can also present opportunities to boost employee morale, show support and make organizational changes that cater to today’s complex circumstances. These findings have inspired Quovant to continue having regular conversations and conducting ongoing polls. The company is also developing an engagement group to encourage open communication and ongoing dialogue to ensure employees have the tools they need as they continue to function remotely. Given the number of social issues being raised during the pandemic, the engagement team also gives a voice to causes that are important to employees.

Additionally, companies may be able to surface other issues that affect their employees’ performance and satisfaction that they can address after the pandemic, such as long commute times, taking care of pets, lagging technologies and internal processes, and flexibility needs for personal matters. Business leaders can then find ways to address these issues. For instance if the company’s offices are in urban areas with highly congested traffic, consider implementing designated remote days for employees on a weekly basis. If most team members have families or small children, encourage flexible hours when possible so they do not have to choose between family and their careers. This is especially important as school districts across the country are currently juggling back-to-school plans.

To run a safer, more productive organization with lower turnover and higher employee satisfaction, it is critical to regularly consider these issues and be responsive to new ones raised. Companies must ensure that employees feel heard, and put their health and safety at the forefront.

William B. Horne is CEO of Quovant, a software and services company providing legal spend management and data analytics solutions.