Some consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to play out for decades, but one consequence became clear very quickly: post-pandemic, remote work is here to stay.
In one swoop, much of the world learned that a lot of their work could be done remotely. During the pandemic, of course, working remotely meant working from home, but that won’t always have to be the case.
For employers, this begs an important question: Will remote-work arrangements be a mandatory perk for candidates in the post-pandemic economy? Likewise, will top talent insist on work-from-home (and seek employment elsewhere if they don’t get it)?
The research so far suggests no, but with a big caveat. For many companies and for many roles, remote work could become the norm rather than the exception. Some jobs, however, are by their very nature location-dependent.
This means HR will (like Reddit did) have to develop strategies for assessing where and how work should get done for each role in the company.
That’s a big challenge, but with the right planning, investment in technologies, and buy-in from company leadership, HR teams can help position their companies as destination employers in a post-pandemic economy.
Many employees will continue to seek WFH opportunities
A significant segment of the workforce found that they thrived in remote-work arrangements.
In the spring of 2020, Global Workplace Analytics surveyed more than 2,800 office workers and found that about three in four respondents said they would like to continue working from home after the pandemic.
“While the experience of working at home during the crisis may not have been ideal as whole families sheltered in place, it will give people a taste of what could be,” Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister writes. “The genie is out of the bottle and it’s not likely to go back in.”
But employers, too, are warming to this arrangement. As Lister notes, managers and executives have been working from home, too, and they’re enjoying its benefits. Further, employers are seeing just how much they’re spending to keep people in an office.
“[Since the last recession] occupancy studies have shown just how inefficient office space was being used,” Lister writes. “Employees around the globe are not at their desk 50% to 60% of the time! That’s a huge waste of money.”
And now there’s a safety dimension to working on-site. If COVID-19 remains a health risk long after a vaccine gets to market, then people will be hesitant to share close quarters with other people. Remote work might become a workplace-safety protocol.
“Insurers may well demand it,” writes Juliette Kayyem, a consultant, researcher, and former official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “For the most part, employers are not well insured for a pandemic, and insurers are frequently denying coronavirus-related claims. Employers, in other words, will face financial pressure to better mitigate the risk.”
Kayyem cites the insurance company Nationwide as an example of what this could look like. Nationwide announced in April 2020 that it would close all but four facilities. Employees near those facilities would work from the office, but employees elsewhere would work from home on a permanent basis.
We’ll explore this hybrid-workforce model more in just a moment. First, it’s worth exploring whether companies are really, truly prepared for long-term remote work.
Early reports suggest this isn’t the case.
What will the post-pandemic workplace look like?
Many company leaders report feeling confident in their navigation of the work-from-home pivot their teams had to make in response to the pandemic.
However, many of these same company leaders admit to being underprepared for a long-term move to at least partial remote work.
In August 2020, Terminal, a company whose platform brings together remote engineering teams, reported results from a survey that found “[m]ore than two-thirds of HR and engineering leaders say they don’t have a long-term plan” for accommodating remote work.
“Top tech talent can now work from anywhere, which means a company’s talent strategy is inherently intertwined with their remote strategy,” Terminal CEO Clay Kellogg says. “Yet, just 27 percent of engineering and HR leaders say they have a strong and thriving remote culture today, and many lack the expertise to create one.”
The first step in creating a remote strategy is to understand that this is not an either/or proposition. Very likely, most organizations will deploy some combination of remote work and work-from-office arrangements — the same hybrid model that Nationwide adopted.
This is where HR can take a leading role. Assessing each role and its fit for remote work will form the basis of any strategy. As McKinsey researchers Brodie Boland, Aaron De Smet, Rob Palter, and Aditya Sanghvi write, there are four ways to classify a role:
- Available for full remote.
- Available for hybrid remote (i.e. sometimes working from the office).
- Can be done remotely if necessary.
- Must be done on site.
That classification, then, helps define how future candidates are sourced. On-site roles require local talent, whereas fully remote roles are, at least theoretically, open to talent around the globe.
From there, HR can begin to re-assess what a workplace is, and what people do there. Coen van Oostrom, CEO of real estate development company EDGE, tells CNBC that a post-pandemic office will become a place where “culture is being built, where new people are being brought in and can learn and understand the way things are done in a company.”
Those intangible benefits will define the space and the interactions of the people who occupy it. In fact, John Moran, CEO of the commercial real estate company JLL Ireland, writes that offices will become a place for in-person interaction.
Head-down, individual work can take place elsewhere, but the office will provide a space where people can bump into one another, share ideas, tell stories, help each other, and do all the little things that in aggregate comprise a culture.
Tips for creating a post-Covid workplace that attracts top candidates
Creating such a workplace takes time, and it’s a dynamic process in which employers and employees exchange inputs.
For HR leaders, here are three things to keep in mind as they facilitate that back-and-forth.
1. Build consensus around how work can and should get done
Whatever distribution of on-site and off-site team members emerges, it’s up to an organization’s leaders to build a vision for how everyone will work together.
“Re-acclimating an onsite workforce will present an enormous change-management challenge for executives, who will need a communication strategy that can help employees who are returning to the workplace, as well as those who continue to work remotely, embrace a shared vision of what comes next,” PwC researchers Paula Loop and Paul DeNicola write.
Loop and DeNicola note that HR will play an important role in handling employee concerns during that transition, but it’s also important to point out that HR may have to push company leaders to develop and communicate their vision for work, as well.
This latter point is key because this vision will give companies an advantage when competing for talent. “At the end of the day, the organizations that can develop the clearest, most inspiring visions, learn the fastest, and pivot the most capably, are the ones that win,” write Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz, partners at the consultancy Innosight.
2. Be ready to invest in tech, but don’t rush
“In a flexible workplace, good communication and even better technology take the lead in planning,” the team at workplace design company Robin writes.
“Employees must be empowered to do great work from home, report their progress (using an app like Asana or Monday), collaborate effectively with teams (using whiteboard Apps like Miro or Workfront), and get access to any of the resources they’d expect to find in the office (such as filesharing, leaderboards, or wikis).”
If your company already works from a techstack like this, great. If not, then it’s best to roll out new tools slowly and iteratively, the team at EY Belgium writes. Adopt tools one by one, give employees plenty of training and time to get onboard, and be open to their feedback, they recommend.
“This way of structural implementation is essential. Remote working is an investment. Do not rush, but build step by step.”
3. Listen to employees’ needs
This last point reflects what the EY Belgium team recommends. Any time you introduce changes in workflows or technologies, you should solicit employee feedback to ensure their smooth adoption.
“[Managers] need to recognise that each team member is different, listen to their needs, and understand that performance might vary depending on how individuals adapt to the new situation,” Veronica Melian and Adrian Zebib at Deloitte write.
Building a post-pandemic workplace that attracts top talent will require input from throughout the organization, but it’s ultimately going to fall on company executives to lead the change, and on HR leaders to guide the project.
This is important work, though, because it does more than bolster the organization’s talent strategy. It will also create a more human, more connected environment in which work gets done, even when that environment is a hybrid of in-person and virtual spaces.
“With the right practices and technology, business leaders can help ease feelings of isolation while improving communication, collaboration and productivity,” the team at Slack writes.
“But perhaps most importantly of all, leaders invested in getting remote work right can help employees navigate enormous change during uncertain times, whether workers are in the office or at home.”