The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the way we work on its head and it’s clear we’re likely never going back to the way we used to operate. It’s no longer “work from home;” it’s “work from anywhere,” and the traditional office and desktop workspace have become pre-COVID artifacts as a result.
While this opens the door to new possibilities and opportunities for collaboration, technological innovation and talent pipelines, I’m taking a hard look at how our employees and executives are feeling about where we are now and where we are headed. As companies move into the new year and evaluate return to workplace plans for 2021, it’s becoming clear that executives and employees may not see eye to eye on how the future of work should look.
In fact, a recent 9,000-respondent global study that my company conducted uncovered substantial misalignment between executive and employee respondents on how and if they will maintain new ways of working post-COVID-19. It’s important we address this misalignment and resolve any tensions between executives and employees so that it doesn’t affect or detract from company morale and employee productivity.
Here are some of the key areas the study identified for HR leaders to focus on in addressing these differing priorities.
Not all agree that this new normal is here to stay
While the benefits of remote work have been widely touted, a surprising number of executives want to return to pre-COVID business procedures, nearly half (47 percent) to be precise. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of employees (87 percent) wish to maintain the new ways of working they’ve adopted during the pandemic.
The key here is to remember that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to managing the post-COVID future of work. Team members across a company, no matter where they sit, have faced different challenges throughout the pandemic and have different needs. And they should have more of a say in deciding for themselves when, where and how they want to work. Everyone has different circumstances, and we need to be flexible.
The roadmap is going to vary for every employee and every organization, but across the board, flexibility is becoming the new priority perk to balance individual desires and needs, whether it is coming into the office, working remotely or both.
This will also change the way organizations think about the end-to-end employee journey. For example, organizations may embrace an “office in a box” model where new hires get everything they need to work from anywhere. Office life will change with new workspace layouts and staggered occupancy plans that are optimized for social distance and employee health.
When the pandemic does end, workplaces will reopen. But work will be different, and HR leaders need to start planning for this now. Agile, distributed, “anywhere, anytime” workplaces will continue to be the norm rather than the exception to meet differing situations.
Challenges and benefits of continued remote work vary
As we move forward, it will be increasingly important for HR leaders to understand the challenges and perceived benefits of continued remote work among their workforces. Our research found that this varies depending on where one sits in an organization.
For example, 50 percent of executives believe that better use of technology to improve efficiency is the greatest benefit to their teams, while 54 percent of employees say that time saved from not commuting or traveling are the greatest advantages. Employees seem most concerned about a reduced collaboration between business units (48 percent).
Breaking down silos between different functions is absolutely critical in the months ahead. In this new environment, distributed workforces across the board will need to work together in new ways and we’ll see more cross-departmental collaboration between HR, IT, facilities, security and much more. These functions may even merge into employee experience teams led by a chief experience officer, who can oversee this new employee experience.
These challenges and opportunities are connected by a common thread: Digitizing the employee experience will be mission-critical in this new world of work. Tools like predictive intelligence, improved enterprise search, and Virtual Agent chatbots make it easy for employees to get what they need so they can concentrate on their important tasks and maintain business continuity. I’ve personally seen how these tools create an all-around more engaged, positive and productive remote workforce as they provide a familiar, consumer-like way to get work done in a remote work environment.
Employees want employers to prioritize their personal safety
As businesses plan to reopen workplaces, it will be vital to establish trust with employees by ensuring safety in the return to physical work environments.
But right now, employees and executives alike are skeptical. In fact, 60 percent of employees believe their company will prioritize business continuity over workplace safety, and a sizable number of executives (44 percent) believe this as well. And even if a company tries to put safety first, 46 percent of employees and 32 percent of executives don’t think their employer can pull it off.
Resuming in-person work hinges on whether employees feel safe, and HR leaders will need to ensure that a commitment to employee safety is clearly communicated and reinforced company-wide. This requires frequent communication and constantly soliciting feedback from executives and employees to evaluate “workforce readiness” and keep a gauge on how effectively a company is executing on its safety approach.
Preparing employees to come back to the workplace in some capacity also requires careful thought about the policies and training that requires, not an afterthought, so employers need to be thinking about this now and putting forth their plans proactively.
Rethinking how work happens moving forward
The world’s dramatic pivot to remote work is showing everyone what the future of work looks like now. New ways of working are becoming norms and we are on the cusp of an unprecedented wave of workplace innovation. Embracing a hybrid approach is what I’m betting on for not only the workplace of the future but also the workplace of the now.
While executives and employees may currently differ on the best path forward, we can all agree that this gives us the opportunity to rethink how, when and where we work. HR leaders play a critical strategic role in bridging the gap between employees and executives. I’m confident we can help create a shared vision for what the future of work should look like.