The road back to the office has been full of detours and even dead ends. Omicron has upended the world’s return to the office and the future of return-to-work plans once again remains uncertain with a timeline in flux. But as the pandemic becomes endemic, our remote or hybrid work arrangements are beginning to seem like a permanent fixture instead of a temporary solution.
When COVID first hit, it was disorienting for all of us. We didn’t know how to survive a lockdown and still keep our businesses alive and thriving. We joined forces to figure out what worked and what didn’t. When you fast forward to today and talk with people who are still resistant to going back to the office, the reason can be summed up in one word: freedom.
Convenience is Key
The executives I coach every day tell me they love the convenience factor of remote work. They love being able to take walks during meetings, get the laundry done during the workday, start dinner in the Instant Pot so that it’s ready when the family sits down at the table. While working from home, people have been able to multi-task in a different way that is very efficient and effective for work-life balance.
They feel more in control of their lives because working remotely allows more freedom over your time. It felt like an extravagance at first, but it actually worked. Several recent studies show productivity while working remote is actually better than working in an office setting. The 5th Annual State of Remote Work report by Owl Labs surveyed over two-thousand full-time workers in the U.S. in September 2021. The overarching theme is that productivity didn’t suffer with remote work. Here are some notable stats from that report:
- 83% say they are at the same productivity level – or higher – working from home compared to the office.
- 3 in 4 (74%) say working from home is better for their mental health.
- 55% say they work more hours working remotely than at the physical office.
- 84% shared that working remotely after the pandemic would make them happier, with many even willing to take a pay cut.
- 39% of employers are requiring employees to be in the office full-time post-pandemic, but only 29% want to be.
I recently talked with a client who is the CEO of a company and had to make the tough decision to let his office manager go because she refused to come back to the office. The office manager has two dogs at home and wants to have the flexibility to be able to care for them during the day like she did during the lockdown. She has been with the company for many years and is a critical part of the organization, so the CEO tried his best to come up with a solution that would work for everyone. He offered to give her a pay raise so that she could afford to rent an apartment very close to the office so that she could run home and walk the dogs throughout the workday. Even then, the offer was turned down. As her position is integral to being in the office in-person, he was left with no other alternative than to let her – and her years of experience – go.
People are still all over the place on this topic. I’ve talked with other clients, especially extroverts, who can’t wait to return to the office full-time. They feel out of the loop and that they aren’t as effective without face to face experiences that help them to feel included in the company.
Regardless of whether you want to remain remote or are counting down the hours until you return to the water cooler gossip, the freedom component is still the driving factor in decision making. Leaders must find a way to give employees freedom while maintaining order, company culture and accountability.
One idea that has been brought to the forefront because of the pandemic is the four-day workweek. Kickstarter CEO Aziz Hasan is rewarding employees who stuck with him over the past two years with a pilot study that allows employees to clock eight fewer hours over four days for no less pay.
COVID-19 has changed the workplace for good, and as we’ve seen with The Great Resignation, workers are rethinking how they want to work. I recently listened to a NPR podcast with Ben Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa and the author of Work Without End, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang author of Shorter: Work Better Smarter and Less – Here’s How and Natalie Nagele founder/CEO of Wildbit, a Philadelphia software company, on this topic.
Although more companies are embracing a four-day workweek due to the pandemic, the idea has been around for a long time. Vice President Richard Nixon predicted the adoption of a four-day workweek back in 1956, but it never was accepted by the mainstream.
Is it really accessible to everyone? In 2019, Microsoft tried a four-day workweek pilot program in Japan but discontinued it after just five weeks even though the company reported a productivity boost of 40%. The idea now seems to be gaining more traction outside of the U.S. and with smaller, privately-owned companies.
Natalie Nagele brought it to her tech startup in 2017 but only after including a deep dive into how her employees actually work. After reading Cal Newton’s book Deep Work, Natalie realized her team was working ineffectively because they weren’t using their workday for work that actually made a difference to the business. They were constantly checking emails and sitting in hours of meetings without getting any real work done. Newton advocates for setting aside big chunks of time in your day in which you are completely undisturbed in order to get important work done. Most employees at Wildbit now take Fridays off, though some choose Monday and others spread their time off across five days. The employees say they appreciate having time to take care of daily life tasks that can’t get done on a weekend, such as doctor’s appointments or school conferences.
Natalie says it’s an experiment that has paid off for her company. There’s a lot less time wasted and employees are more relaxed and engaged. The hardest part, she says, was a self-inflicted worry that the work was not going to get done. As a leader, you need to define the things that need to get done that will actually move the business forward. She’s found that her team can get the same high-quality work done in less time because they are being more intentional about their work.
Natalie will soon have more people with which to share her shorter workweek. Thirty-five North American companies and around 20-plus global companies are testing out a four-day workweek as part of a pilot program spearheaded by the 4 Day Week Global group. Almost 2,000 employees will receive a paid day off weekly through the course of the trial. The goal is to gather and share more data to build a template that could make it possible for many other businesses to embrace this model.
So, What’s the Solution?
Obviously a four-day workweek cannot be the answer for every company, so leaders will have to find freedom for employees in other ways. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in this case. We all have to figure it out for our own organizations by watching what’s working elsewhere, talking with companies with successful models you may possibly want to emulate and attempting experiments, before determining what to land on for your company.
I would suggest a leader first look in the mirror and ask yourself these questions:
- What is your perspective of remote work, hybrid work and returning to the office?
- Where are you biased? That means, when this topic comes up, where do you feel emotion and what thoughts and feelings are causing that emotion? That’s your underlying belief system, and you may need to take a deeper look into your beliefs. For example, if you believe that all employees are going to take advantage of working from home, you need to examine why you feel that way. You may need to adapt your entire leadership style to address your newly realized trust issues.
- How can you assess the multitude of factors that need to be considered when crafting a return-to-work plan (i.e. health conditions and living situations of employees, child care issues, etc.)?
- How have you personally changed or adapted to the work situation during the pandemic?
- What factors are you not applying to the situation?
The companies that put effort into figuring out how to give their employees some freedom now will benefit in the long term. Leaders who step up and think outside of the box during this crisis will feel more connected to their teams. Even with all of the current unknown about the future, there’s one thing that we know for certainty after the past two years – flexibility will be essential for workplace success.