Before the pandemic, flexible work arrangements were relatively rare and restricted. But now, after a year when an estimated two-thirds of American employees worked from home as they sheltered in place, many organizations are planning for a more flexible future. In one recent Mercer survey, we found that 88% of organizations globally are revising their flexible work offerings, with many planning to allow their employees to continue work remotely — at least part of time — after the pandemic ends.
From both a talent management and a business perspective, this makes good sense. Research shows that remote work often improves employee engagement, commitment and performance. Remote work reduces real estate and operating costs, saving organizations an estimated $11,000 per year for every half-time hybrid employee, according to Global Workplace Analytics. It can help lower greenhouse emissions by reducing commutes and removing cars from the road. And it can help organizations attract and retain top talent, particularly working parents and older employees. In one study we conducted last fall with AECOM, we found that 56% of employees would consider switching jobs if their organization curtails flexible work after the pandemic.
But providing your employees with a more flexible future doesn’t come without risks. Remote work can cause a number of workplace problems, particularly when employees are working outside the office most or all of the week. For example, researchers have found that remote work can increase work-family conflict. It can intensify employees’ psychological relationship with work, blur the boundary between their work lives and personal lives, and put people at risk for overwork and burnout. It can also cause employees to feel disconnected from their coworkers, team members and immediate managers.
If your organization is planning for a more flexible future, now is a good time to get feedback from your workforce. By asking your employees about their current remote work experiences and their future remote work aspirations, you can start developing a flexible work strategy that is aligned with their most critical needs wants, and challenges. Here are five important topics to explore.
- Highlights and low lights. For many employees, working from home during the pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse. Based on our own field studies, we know that employees have appreciated the safety, freedom and autonomy that remote work has provided. But after months of perpetual lockdowns, a number of mental health challenges — including cumulative stress, quarantine fatigue and loneliness — are on the rise. By asking your employees about their ups and downs over this past year, you can learn about their remote experience, provide social support and create an opportunity for collective catharsis.
- Performance gains and losses. This past year has changed the way we work. The good news is that employees and organizations have realized a number of efficiency gains. Research suggests that remote work helped boost efficiency and productivity last year. But there are also signs that remote work can lead to excessive meetings, communication gaps and challenges for new hires. Some leaders and managers are worried that intensive remote work is reducing the number of serendipitous moments and chance encounters that often spark innovations and breakthroughs. By asking your workforce to reflect on the process losses and gains they experienced and observed this past year, you can start determining how your workplace policies, practices and norms will need to evolve.
- Future hopes and expectations. As you develop your flexible work strategy, it’s important to understand and level set employee expectations. Based on our most recent research, most employees want to work at home two to three days a week. This is consistent with other studies, such as this one, which found that US federal workers want to work remotely at least three days a week after the pandemic. But it’s important to note that employees have a wide range of opinions, and many still want to spend a good portion of their workweek in the office. Global Workplace Analytics has found that the number of days that employees want to work remotely varies by generation. This means that when it comes to remote work and flexible work arrangements, one size doesn’t fit all. The only way to determine what your workforce wants is to ask.
- Culture threats and community builders. How will remote work affect our culture? That’s one of the biggest concerns that organizations have as they consider a more flexible future. Culture is an emergent phenomenon — one that is shaped on a daily basis through workplace discussions, decisions and interactions. Many senior leaders worry that in a virtual world of dispersed employees, it will become increasingly difficult to sense, shape and sustain culture and community at work. This is a valid concern: various experts have warned that technology can create social distance and isolation. One way to counter these risks is to ask your employees about their recent experiences. How has remote work affected their sense of connection and community this past year? What aspects of your workplace culture have they missed the most? The least? What do they think is the best way to build, maintain and evolve your organization’s culture with a flexible workforce?
- Ideal workweek. There are no two ways about it. Hybrid work is going to disrupt the way we work in a number of profound ways. Whether these disruptions are positive and productive or negative and chaotic will depend on the extent to which organizations can transform their policies, practices and norms and build a more flexible, fluid and digital infrastructure. The workweek is one good place to start this transformation. Time management has been a particularly vexing workplace problem for decades. During the pandemic, many employees had the opportunity to experiment with new ways of working. Some quickly became overwhelmed with meetings. Others discovered that working remotely provides the quiet, space and solitude they need to do deep work. As your organization prepares for hybrid schedules and teams, now is a good time to ask your employees to reflect on their recent experiences and start planning for their hybrid future. Most jobs involve a mix of individual work, teamwork, client work and administrivia. By asking your employees to envision their ideal workweek, you can help them think about when and where they can do their best work. Using this information, managers and leaders can start developing flexible work arrangements that balance the needs of individual employees with those of the team and the organization.
There are a number ways to talk with your employees about these topics. Team meetings are a good place to start. We’ve found that hosting digital focus groups using platforms like Remesh, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people at once, are an effective way to have these conversations at scale. We’ve also developed a series of flexible work pulse surveys to measure employee attitudes about their current remote work experiences and their post-pandemic flexible work preferences. Informed with this kind of feedback, you can identify current challenges, anticipate future needs, and start developing a strategy that maximizes the rewards and minimizes the risks of remote work.