Building a New Normal

February 9, 2021

With calendars flipped to a new year and hopes high that the COVID-19 vaccine will soon allow life to return to some semblance of normalcy later this year, companies are taking a serious look at what corporate work life might look like in the future. Time will tell the exact when of any return to workplaces, but the how is becoming increasingly clear as more and more organizations lay the groundwork for their return-to-office plans.

52% of Fortune 500 execs are targeting a return to the workplace within the next 7-12 months (Great Place to Work)

The Employee-Built Future of Work

Regardless of how companies decide to approach office life in the future, one thing is clear: work is forever changed. And like any change, employees continue experiencing the rollercoaster of ups and downs that comes with it.

While some appreciate the flexibility and autonomy of remote work, many continue to struggle with skewed work-life balance and mental health issues. And while companies are working to better circumstances with increased leader touchpoints, development initiatives, and new health benefits and wellbeing offerings, commitments alone are not enough. The onus is on employers to create and sustain lasting solutions as work continues to evolve and, in some cases, soon shift back into office settings.

Less than 1/3 of employees believe their company has successfully addressed employee well-being, including mental health and morale (PWC)

A Safe Return to Offices

Overall, employee confidence and engagement held steady following the shift to at-home work, with many placing trust and credibility in company and leader communications. Even so, any sort of return to offices is sure to be both nebulous and complex, and companies must navigate carefully.

Employees continue to hold strict criteria on what it’ll take to help them feel comfortable stepping back into the workplace. Consider these key factors before reopening the doors to welcome corporate employees back into the workplace:

  • Health and Government Official Guidance – When determining when and how to return to work, rely on science and data and follow official health and government guidelines. Remember, employers must also abide by all state or local laws, as well as provide “reasonable accommodations” to people with disabilities and religious objections.

  • Widespread Immunization – Returning to the workplace will largely depend on the number of coronavirus cases in your local area and circumstances of employee inoculation. While getting the vaccine is the first step in immunity, community spread will continue until the vaccine is more readily available and administered. Keep in mind, not everyone will elect to receive the vaccine.

  • A Safe Working Environment – Health and safety protocols, such as social distancing or mandatory masks, are viewed as the most critical factor (Honeywell) in whether U.S. employees will feel safe in their office buildings. Other examples of workplace safety upgrades include reconfiguring office spaces, providing contactless office solutions, investing in upgraded HVAC systems, access to PPE and reducing the sharing of equipment. Companies must also institute rule following policies.

  • Stress-Free Commuting and Public Transportation – Employees who rely on public transportation to trek to and from offices have concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19 on their commutes. Nearly half of Americans expect to drive more often (Ipsos). Some will also benefit from new commuting and parking stipends or company partnerships with rideshare services.

  • Employee-Supporting Policies – Remote work has allowed some office workers newfound freedom and flexibility – and they expect to maintain those benefits. That extends beyond the workplace to employees’ personal lives, whether it is a parent worried about dependent care or anxiety of exposing a loved one to the virus.

  • Clear Plans and Timelines – Eliminate confusion and build trust by communicating early and often as return-to-office plans take shape. Even when you may not have all the answers, knowing that you are thinking about your employees and working to address and solve their concerns will keep your population engaged. Organizations recognizing their workforce’s evolution and developing reentry strategies based on past learnings, best practices, and company-specific data can make the return safe and satisfying.

Approaches to the Future of Work

During the past year, often through trial and error, companies worked to solve an extraordinarily complex equation around how and where people work with offices closed. Now, with the prospects of returning the corporate workforce to offices becoming a reality for summer or fall 2021, employers are working to nail down the details of exactly how they’ll go back – or if they will at all.

While there is no set template, organizations have categorized their return plans into a few key categories. Most are opting for a hybrid model but continue to shake out the specifics of exactly how they’ll manage through the change.

However companies decide to go back, the time to set plans is now. Those who wait much longer will find themselves in another scramble.

1: Return to the Old Normal

Some businesses are opting for a return to pre-pandemic operations, with employees returning full time to corporate facilities and office routines. Companies pushing for a resurgence of the “old normal” attribute their approach to the importance of connectivity.

Pros: The most notable benefit to office life: the human element and serendipitous in-person interactions that counteract the loneliness pandemic to create colleague connection, collaboration and culture – staff meetings, working sessions, hallway conversations, happy hours and more. Other pros include the benefit of traditional work setups, free-flow idea generation and problem solving, greater accountability to work hours and tasks, and stronger equity among staffers currently restricted by circumstances of homelife or lack of access to leadership.

Cons: Employees and partners feel they’ve proven the effectiveness of a remote working model, and a return to the office would feel like a step backward – both in newfound flexible ways of working and in company-to-employee trust. Ties to dedicated office locations also limit opportunities for recruitment and hiring.

Golin’s Guidance: Rather than ask employees to return to the office, gather input and preferences on what they believe work should look like in the future. Having a clear picture of what your people expect from their employer and working environment will allow your organization to set return plans, policies and procedures that support the health of the business and wellbeing of your workforce.

Just 13% of executives are prepared to let go of the office for good (PWC)

2: Hybrid Working

The most popular and preferred option being considered for post-pandemic work life: a hybrid working model that has employees rotating into offices a few days a week, spending their remaining working hours at home or in communal work setups. This offering allows the best of both worlds – it provides employees workspace and opportunity for live co-worker collaboration when it’s beneficial, but also provides the flexibility of remote work that many now enjoy.

Pros: We know remote work works. But we also hear employees calling for the culture and collaboration of office life past. Hybrid working takes the best of both to create a highly productive, people-first environment that brings both teamwork and individual focus – all powered by technology and allowing for the autonomy employees have come to expect.

Cons: The drawback of bringing two models together is the undoubtable inconsistency and confusion that’ll result in having your workforce split between two varied working models. While the most preferred of the options, this will require the most change management and patience as the transition begins. Plans must include details and specifics and answer all potential scenarios and anticipated employee questions.

Golin’s Guidance: No matter where companies are in the getback journey, it’s worth considering the key elements of both virtual and in-office work as get-back plans take shape – it’s what current employees and prospects want. Create practices that keep staffers productive, healthy and feeling “in balance” while also reaching key business targets. Train managers on ways to keep workers accountable, engaged and motivated, particularly as they balance different circumstances and levels of facetime among each member of their team. Key to the success of this plan will be detailed plans, clear communications and support with change management.

72% of knowledge workers prefer a mix of remote and office work – a hybrid approach (Slack)

3: Remote Only

Some organizations are leaning into the remote work, ditching office space and allowing employees to permanently work from anywhere. Those looking toward a virtual-first model note the boost in productivity, increased cost savings and added flexibility offered with this approach. It’s also favorable to employees who carry new expectations of work following more than a year of the work-from-anywhere mentality. The caveat here is that not every job can function in a fully remote setting, putting limitations on this offering in certain industries and job roles.

Pros: Many employees find higher satisfaction in remote work – better work/life balance, less stress, higher productivity, time and money savings and more. Similarly, brands see opportunities for digital transformation (which can enable stronger collaboration, engagement and nimbleness of teams), cost savings and recruitment of a broader, more diverse talent pool.

Cons: As work continues to live within homes, employees struggle to find boundaries and balance between the two, lacking quiet time, suitable workspace, motivation, separation from house and family needs and clear bookends to the workday. Others note feelings of isolation and struggles to hold team members accountable.

Golin’s Guidance: Those stepping away from offices must ensure tools and technology are in place to offer a seamless experience to at-home workers, and attention must be paid to manage workloads and morale to match the collaboration, recognition and flexibility required to keep engagement high. Additionally, organizations must seek solutions to replicate culture-building moments offered more easily within in-person settings.

Nearly 30% of working professionals would quit if they had to return to the office post-pandemic (USA Today)

Latest Trends and Influences

Determining how employees will divide their working hours between home desks and offices isn’t often a straightforward decision. Review this list of trends and influences organizations are taking into consideration as get-back plans take shape:

  • Office Relocations – The pandemic-induced shift to remote work has pushed corporations to rethink the need for office space, and many are dropping their leases due to expensive lease agreements, high cost of living and tax burdens. New and renewal leases dropped (Axios) 36% from 2019 to 2020, according to a new report from commercial real estate firm CBRE. Companies jumping on the bandwagon: REI (CNN Business) backed away from their sprawling campus early on, and more recently, companies like Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Oracle, Goldman Sachs and Tesla (Investor’s Business Daily) announced plans to ditch hefty real estate costs for space in cheaper locales. But this might not be true for all. Tech companies like Facebook (The New York Times) and Amazon (The Wall Street Journal) are heading in the opposite direction.

The vast majority anticipate no geographic change to the location of their office; however, over half anticipate reducing office space by at least 10% (Great Place To Work)

  • Restructured Office Spaces – Many brands are using this time to rethink their workspaces and create environments that will work for hybrid-work styles (The Wall Street Journal). Whether employees are entirely remote, part-time remote or in the office every day, a “dynamic workplace” will offer more flexibility in layout and management. Office spaces will include open café-like settings, collaboration spaces, unassigned desks, and soundproof rooms for calls and meetings.

  • Communal Working – While communal workspaces such as WeWork experienced closed offices and low attendance like other commercial office spaces, (The Wall Street Journal) they show promise for the future due to their ability to flex with office trends. As businesses suspend leases and close offices, many are leaning toward the use of “flexible” communal workspaces as their new normal, offering employees the option to work there on the company’s dime (at least until more permanent solutions shake out).

Commercial real estate company JLL predicts that 30% of all offices will be flexible by 2030 (JLL)

  • Work-Whenever Policies – Some white-collar workers are seeing a dismantling of the traditional 9-to-5 workday, with employees now able to tailor their working hours in accordance with pandemic-created personal scheduling demands – caretaking, remote learning and more. Siemens Software (Good Morning America) shifted expectations of what work looks like, opting for the belief that the hours employees are logged on don’t matter if the work gets done. Some warn, however, that this trend might be unrealistic or short-lived given online meetings create a good deal of calendar overlap.

  • Location-Agnostic Hiring Practices – As remote work continues for office workers, employers are tapping into talent pools beyond the HQ cities, hiring and onboarding employees regardless of where they live. Companies like Twitter, Zillow and Square have expressed a willingness to hire remotely, which ultimately opens the talent pool (Human Resource Executive) that was previously restricted by location to offices. A clear benefit to organizations, it’s also rewarding to those employees who ditched big cities months ago as work-from-anywhere policies became the norm. (An unexpected outcome: telework is unearthing added complexities of city and state taxes.) (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

46% of large companies are now more open to hiring remote employees (JLL)

  • Gamification of Work – Virtual work has sparked a wave of creativity among tech-savvy companies, which have tapped into gamification platforms (The Wall Street Journal) to transform offices of yore into video game-like settings. Employee avatars can roam through virtual workspaces with accessibility to chat, share documents, video conference – and have a little fun. Companies diving in on the trend range from Sega, Sony and Shopify to Harvard, Lufthansa and LinkedIn. Platforms are also being tested by the likes of Apple, Reddit and Uber.

  • Vaccine Incentive Programs – With widespread vaccines a top requirement for folks to feel comfortable reentering workspaces, companies are looking at ways to encourage team members to get vaccinated when available. And, legally speaking, companies can require it (SHRM) (of course, that comes with caveats and anticipated employee pushback). We’re seeing brands with essential frontline workers take the lead here, with Aldi, Dollar General and Trader Joe’s (Fast Company) among those making it easier and more beneficial for workers to get shots.

Nearly half of people say they are either unlikely or very unlikely to get the shot (Healthcare Finance News)

  • Workforce Reductions – In response to the pressures of the pandemic, companies have had to adopt dreaded cost-saving measures—furloughs and layoffs. A staggering 22 million jobs (USA Today) were lost in the spring but as of December 2020, about 56% of those had been recouped. As populations emerge from lockdown, there’s promise that the uptick in revenue will also ramp up hiring.

  • Reskilling – Technology-driven change in the workplace has only been accelerated (McKinsey) by the pandemic, and workers’ need for support is stronger than ever. Companies are also realizing that reskilling could be a way to avoid layoffs and remain competitive, and employees see clear benefits to better prepare for future change. By identifying and leveraging “skill adjacencies,” workers can transition to similar roles (Politico) in a matter of weeks. Amazon has led one of the first initiatives, (Amazon) investing $700 million into training programs from their corporate offices to fulfillment centers.

  • Use of Contract Workers – The trend toward remote work operates in tandem with freelancing and contracting. Platforms like FlexJobs saw a 24% increase (CNBC) in freelance job postings in the spring, while job opportunities overall were falling. Now, most CEOs agree (Nasdaq) that the agility of a hybrid workforce will provide a competitive advantage and allow for increased efficiency, even in the face of change. Freelancers offer an attractive solution to fill gaps temporarily as confidence builds toward permanent hiring. It’s a mutually beneficial move—contractors are afforded more flexibility than a traditional worker, which may be enticing to working parents or others who have taken on additional caretaker roles during the pandemic.

Forward-Looking Plans

With a vaccine in place and restrictions starting to lift in certain regions, the time is right to double down on planning for the future of work. The most important rule of thumb: don’t rush it. While corporate employees were sent home in a scramble, the return to offices has every opportunity to be a smoother, more deliberate process – one guided by and built for the people who power your business.

A few guideposts and best practices to follow as your plans take shape:

  • Listen and respond. It’s more important than ever to keep a pulse on your teams. Combat survey fatigue of the monthly pulse checks by instead scaling down to a single, one-off get-back-to-work preferences survey that allows for breaking down data across employee type. Then, use data to inform both quick action and longer-term plans for your new working model and share out broadly to communicate the employee-informed plan.

  • See it from their point of view. Each role within an organization has unique circumstances, and workplaces of the future must reflect those nuances. Ensure your return-to-work taskforce includes representatives across functions, geographies, levels, tenures, age groups and more. Understand there is no one-size-fits-all solution and meet staffers where they are with a range of custom solutions to quell anxiety, loneliness, hardships of caregiving and more. Remember to recognize and communicate with both frontline and corporate employees, even if just for awareness of how they’ll work together in the future.

  • Measure and adapt. Understand what’s working and what isn’t. Keep listening and adjust plans and policies to match the fluidity of the landscape and employee sentiment. Be transparent and actionable around changes are being made (and those that aren’t) as the test-and-learn continues.

  • Tell a consistent story. Look deeply into your company’s values to guide your decision making. Conflicts between your company’s culture ecosystem and recently surfaced employee sentiment may mean it’s time to check on the relevance of your values and purpose to ensure they’re truly reflective of who you are and who you want to become as an organization. Any update to mission, vision, values or purpose must happen pre-planning to ensure full cultural alignment.

  • Engage leaders and managers. These folks are your golden ticket – now and always. Ensure this group receives robust training on how to navigate and communicate upcoming changes to their teams and how new ways of working impact people management across the organization. These mid-level managers are critical to the success of the new working model and must be comfortable and confident with new ways of working before plans are put into action.

  • Remember the journey. This is the rule of thumb for any change, especially when navigating roads untraveled. Plan for all stages of the change curve and expect varying levels of resistance and acceptance. Being flexible while developing your return-to-work plan will help ensure your employees know that their health and safety is top priority, and they will feel confident in your ability to lead them on this journey.