After a year of remote work arrangements due to COVID-19, many companies are starting to welcome employees back to the office as restrictions lift and vaccinations become more widespread. Many companies, particularly those that employ white collar professionals in office settings, are now giving employees more choices about where and when to work. Businesses as diverse as Microsoft, Citigroup, TIAA, Target and Ford have made it clear that they will not return to working exclusively in the office.
“Before COVID, work was a ‘place,’ and most of us went to this place,” said Jeff Schwartz, a principal at Deloitte and leader of the firm’s U.S. Future of Work practice. “Back then, about 3% to 5% of employees were permitted to work at home as so-called ‘telecommuters.’ Now, most employees are telecommuters and most employers have found that this new world of work is productive—assuming the risks are understood and managed.”
Before the pandemic, academic theorists and researchers predicted this work paradigm, but imagined the shift would be more gradual. Then, the pandemic hit. “COVID wasn’t a detour to a new way of work, it was the on-ramp,” Schwartz said.
The Rewards of Remote Work
Some employees have enjoyed these remote work arrangements. “As they got used to doing their jobs at home, they developed an affinity for it,” said Schwartz, who also wrote the book Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work.
“Many employees felt a greater sense of freedom in choosing when to get their work done,” he said. “They no longer had to endure twice-a-day, hour-long commutes, in some cases. They felt more focused and motivated, which resulted in more productive outcomes.”
Surveys conducted by management consultancy PwC in June and December 2020 showed companies largely felt that they had adjusted positively to the changes. In June, 73% of employers surveyed said the shift to remote work had been “successful” for their company. In December, 83% claimed the same. In addition, 52% of employers reported that average employee productivity had improved as compared to the pre-pandemic period.
An online survey by HBS in March 2021 (before widespread vaccine availability) indicated that most white-collar workers had readjusted to remote work and wanted the option to continue to work remotely, despite what many respondents said were longer work hours. More than eight in 10 (81%) respondents said they did not want to return to the physical office or preferred a hybrid work schedule, with 61% expressing a preference for two to three days a week from their homes. Only 18% said they wanted to return to the office on a full-time basis.
“What is surprising is how well people feel they have performed at work, while at home,” said Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard Business School Online. “As we’re preparing to get back to ‘business as usual,’ it seems professionals don’t want business as usual.”
The Risks of Remote Work
The shift to remote work has not been without considerable drawbacks, however, and many workers do not support it. As companies assess longer-term work arrangements or establish hybrid workforce options, they must not downplay or overlook the risks of remote work.
For many employees, this mass experiment has been challenging. Depending on one’s living arrangement, finding an ergonomically safe and quiet workspace has been difficult. Wireless connectivity can be spotty; videoconferencing and other collaboration technology can be unsettling or less effective for some; and children, roommates, pets, delivery service personnel and other home conditions can be intrusive or distracting. Social isolation and “Zoom fatigue” are also common challenges.
For employers, chief concerns continue to include productivity, employee well-being and company culture, as well as leadership’s ability to assess and support these conditions. Can employees contribute at traditional levels on a virtual basis? How do supervisors accustomed to managing people in a physical workspace assure this level of effort?
For the past year, many managers have had to work to adjust. “The historic focus of managerial work needed to change from physical supervision and performance evaluation to virtual assessments of employee productivity, health and well-being,” Schwartz said.
These issues can all damage individual employee welfare and overall workforce culture. “As the work environment becomes more flexible and hybrid, business leaders need to think of innovative ways to bring people together to cultivate social connections,” he said. “I can’t stress the importance of this enough.”
His point is affirmed by the findings of a Gallup survey suggesting that the common threads that tie managers and employees together at the office are at risk of unraveling when everyone works remotely. Employees who do not work in the same location as their manager are 10% less likely to say that someone cares about them at work or recognizes them for their contributions, the survey found. These “disengaging effects” can result in 17% lower productivity and 24% higher turnover.
Other studies cite the effects of acute loneliness caused by the absence of social connections at a physical worksite. According to a joint study by researchers at San Diego State University and Florida State University, anxiety and stress for both young employees and employees with children increased an alarming 700% while working remotely, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
The knee-jerk shift to remote work arrangements that are entirely reliant on virtual communications and collaborations is overwhelming for many employees, said Josh Bersin, dean of human resources professional development organization The Josh Bersin Academy. For example, he pointed to a February 2021 survey of working conditions at Goldman Sachs that found its new analysts were working more than 95 hours per week and sleeping only five hours a night.
“Employees’ mental and physical health has plummeted,” Bersin said. “Their workloads have negatively impacted their family relationships, with 75% of them saying they needed counseling or therapy to deal with their stress. They’re not alone in feeling overworked—the average American worker is working an extra hour and not getting as much sleep as they did pre-pandemic.”
Other workforce management experts noted that some may be claiming productivity when they primarily mean they prefer it, or generating that “productivity” at significant personal expense. “For some employees, when they say they’re more productive, it may be that they like working without anyone interrupting them or looking over their shoulder at their computer—but at what cost?” said Jess Keeney, senior vice president of development at UKG, a provider of workforce management and human capital management solutions. “Are they more productive because they can’t disconnect and because they’ve lost that natural separation from work like getting in the car or train and going home?”
This lack of separation has put extra strain on the concept of work-life balance. “A line was drawn between ‘work’ and ‘home’ in the pre-pandemic era,” Bersin said. “That line is either blurred or erased now. Work and life are now integrated, eradicating the old idea of ‘work-life balance.’ I’m among the many people waking up in the middle of night thinking about work because home is the place where most of my work is done.”
He added, “The nice thing about the office, putting aside the commute, is that you leave it and go home.”
Making the Transition
Companies must consider these risks as they manage remote and physical forms of working. “Most organizations over the past year realized they had become risk managers—of employees,” Schwartz said. “They found innovative ways to maintain employee health and well-being.”
For example, at Telstra, Australia’s largest mobile network and telecommunications company, which decided last year to allow permanent remote work, these adjustments included accepting that each person works differently.
“For some people, dependence on remote work has led to mental health issues from isolation and loneliness,” said Alex Badenoch, Telstra group executive of transformation communication and people. “They miss the casual conversations and problem-solving that happen while being around each other. We refreshed our flexible work policy to focus on the social contract between the manager and the employee. We see the role of the manager as one where they need to provide clarity around people’s work and purpose, but also to check in daily on their health and well-being.”
Once employees began working almost exclusively from home, finance and accounting automation software firm BlackLine searched for ways to preserve the “connective tissue” formerly provided by routine social encounters at its physical offices.
CEO Marc Huffman decided to offer a series of digital events designed to communicate not only about BlackLine’s business priorities, but to share personal updates and experiences as well. Other digital events also included wellness initiatives focused on relieving employee mental stress and anxiety.
“We provided third-party resources like counseling, employee assistance programs, morning exercise programs, yoga, meditation, and evening and afternoon ‘connection activities,’” Huffman said. “For instance, some employees formed an online band and played concerts for other employees. Others taught their coworkers how to cook. Children came on the screen learning how to roll out pasta. These were all innovative and fun things to bring everybody together in a very empathetic way.”
Companies that transitioned to remote work over the past year have become increasingly familiar with the risks and rewards of hybrid work environments. “Remote working has significantly changed the ways we collaborate and stay productive, and inherently increased stress levels,” said Dr. Henna Karna, Google Cloud’s managing director of insurance. “Time has become more fragmented—split between work and personal responsibilities—and human connections are more difficult than ever to establish and maintain.”
Many businesses have started to accept that a hybrid blend of at-home and in-office work will become the norm. “We’re especially interested in what we call ‘collaboration equity’—the ability to contribute equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language and device preference,” Karna said. “We’ve been focused on how we can make this new hybrid work model support collaboration and innovation and enhance inclusion and well-being.”
To better understand how employees feel and if they are engaged when working remotely, workforce management technology firm UKG has developed a tool called Employee Voice that uses natural language processing (NLP) to analyze employees’ written feedback in their responses to open-ended engagement survey questions. The tool analyzes employee words and word patterns to discern emotions like frustration, disappointment, enthusiasm or happiness that may suggest positive or negative health and well-being.
“While employees may respond affirmatively to multiple-choice survey questions asking if productivity has increased and if mental stress and anxiety have reduced, the truth may be more nuanced,” Keeney said.
That could be helpful for managers who can no longer rely on interactions in the traditional in-person workplace to pick up on physical cues that might show an employee is feeling out of sorts. “If someone looks a bit overwhelmed or is running late, leaders naturally ask questions to ferret out the problems and help,” Keeney said. “But that is increasingly harder to do when you’re only seeing small faces in a sea of videoconference squares.”
These tools may prompt potential conversations to figure out ways to help employees. “This might include giving the person time and space to unplug and break the monotony of work and asking coworkers to temporarily pick up the slack and share the teamwork,” Keeney said. “It’s a cultural modification that organizations will need to respect and strive to accommodate.”
Due in part to the many struggles of the pandemic, more businesses are realizing their most critical stakeholders are their employees. Consequently, some of their most pressing risks are people risks. In this regard, risk managers have the opportunity to put their knowledge and expertise to work in collaboration with their colleagues in human resources and IT to invest in processes and technology solutions to help keep workers and the business healthy and productive, wherever they operate.