Back to the Office: What's Next After the Pandemic?

As the world re-opens, organizations will have to find a way of balancing employee expectations with business needs. Here are a few of the issues and challenges you should consider when designing a return-to-work strategy.

Jon Nagamatsu, Partner, LHH Knightsbridge
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Back to the office: What's next after the pandemic?

Heading into the Summer of 2021, an inordinate number of headlines in just about every business news source around the globe are focused on how and when companies would start to call their people back to in-person work.


The pandemic forced us to adapt to working from home but increasing vaccination rates would signal a return to that pre-pandemic in-person working experience, right?


Well, a funny thing happened on our way back to the office.


It is becoming evident that working people would like greater flexibility about how, when and where they work as the world escapes the restrictions that came with the pandemic.


A recent LinkedIn Poll conducted by LHH Knightsbridge found that two-thirds of respondents (67%) prefer to visit the office only once or twice a week or “only when necessary”. A quarter of respondents would like to split their time evenly between home and office, and only 7% of respondents want to work at the office five days a week.


Those poll results are being echoed across the world of human capital. A 2021 survey of 1,500 professionals by the Harvard Business School Online found similar results: the gross majority of respondents wanted greater flexibility to work from home all or some of the time; only a quarter wanted to be back at work full time. Perhaps not surprisingly given the complications that arose for some people with working-from-home arrangements, the back full-time cohort was predominantly made up of people living with others including children.


Results like these create huge challenges for employers going forward. Somehow, we are going to have to find a way of balancing employee expectations with business needs. To date, it is unclear if many organizations are having success finding that delicate balance.


JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, head of the biggest bank in the U.S., made international headlines in June when he proclaimed that all 255,000 employees would be expected back to work in the office sooner rather than later. To ensure that it could be done safely, Dimon also indicated that the Bank’s employees would have to log their vaccine status with the company before returning.


Dimon told a business conference that working from home does not work for younger employees and for those “…who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture.”


Whether or not all that is true, employers will still find that the timing and structure of return-to-work strategies pose significant risks to the engagement and productivity of their workforces going forward.


There is no post-pandemic solution that will work for everyone; every company will have to decide on their own what the future will look like. However, the one thing that all employers share is a critical need to communicate with their people about the possible scenarios that are in play.


In other words, the challenge is less about where you have your people work, and more about how you arrive at your final decision. And most in-demand talent will want to make sure they are part of any final decisions.


As you talk with them, here are a few of the issues and challenges you should consider when designing a return-to-work strategy.


Engagement will be the first casualty of a badly managed return-to-work campaign.
No responsible employer needs to be told that engagement is key to business success. If you force a unilateral solution on your people without proper consultation and dialogue, you will find it very difficult to sustain a deep and meaningful commitment. That will decrease productivity and likely increase turnover.


Do not assume the future is an ‘either-or’ scenario.
The overwhelming majority of business organizations are looking at some sort of hybrid structure for their return-to-work strategies. Research on this issue shows that employers are paying attention to the wishes of their employees; some surveys have shown 70% or more of companies of all sizes are planning on some sort of hybrid arrangement. So, if you are not offering that kind of flexibility, you may find that your organization is an outlier in the open market for talent.


Defining hybrid: which days, and how many days, should people be allowed to work away from the office?
Nicholas Bloom, an Economics Professor at Stanford University, has conducted years of research about the impact of remote working on all aspects of business performance. Bloom believes that remote work is here to stay, although he cautions employers to use a structured approach to defining what that means. Bloom found that three days a week in the office was the most popular option among workers he surveyed. Asking people to come in more than that may trigger the need to provide financial incentives or “face losing staff when economies recover.”


Recruiting and hiring will put more emphasis on flexibility.
The war for talent, particularly highly skilled talent, did not go away with the pandemic. In fact, the volatility that the pandemic brought to the lives of working people may create what some are already referring to as “the talent tsunami,” an unprecedented period of retention and recruitment. With this, it is difficult to tell right now whether employers or talent have the upper hand in the current labour market. For employers worried about retaining top talent, it’s important that you gauge the impact of asking people to work full-time in an office or to travel at pre-pandemic levels when recruiting and establishing compensation guidelines. People with in-demand skills have expectations around how and where they work; employers must be willing to engage on these issues or risk losing out.


Talent management has always been a delicate balancing act, where things like working conditions and compensation must be plotted and assessed against a backdrop of macroeconomic forces and unforeseen challenges like the pandemic. In other words, there is always a measure of risk when establishing strategies and policies related to talent.


That being said, the world has changed profoundly because of the pandemic. The companies that recognize that the rules of engagement before the terms COVID-19 were burned into our collective consciousness have changed.


Organizations that do not change and update their talent strategies may find that they get left behind. Those who do move with the times, however, may find themselves more in control of their talent futures.

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