The Modern Workplace Takes Shape

March 2023
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Remote work surged during the pandemic, which, as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) pointed out, “has changed the perception of the practice and allowed both employees and employers to realize its benefits.”

However, as 2023 continues, more companies have urged staffers to return to the office on required days.

“There’s a little bit of a tug of war going on right now,” David Garfield, global head of industries at consulting firm AlixPartners, told The Wall Street Journal. “Employers are not having an easy time of it.”

To help sort out the future of hybrid-remote work, Strategies & Tactics spoke with Jim Link, SHRM’s chief human resources officer, for insights for employees and leaders alike.

On if hybrid work is here to stay:

Absolutely. Whether it’s hybrid work or remote work, or alternative schedules or anything other than a traditional 40-hour workweek, I refer to that space as “agile work.” And that whole idea of agility is here to stay.

During the worst of the pandemic, we moved workplace agility forward 20 years. We don’t see a return to the days before COVID, at least in the way that employers or employees think about work and workplace agility. 

On the biggest challenges in making a hybrid model succeed:

The first has made headlines. Organizations that have been purely remote have asked employees to return to the workplace. Employees have said, “No, we have proven that our productivity can be as good or better in a structure that’s not based on an office environment.” They’re questioning the wisdom of managers and leaders who want people to come back into the office.

Managers and leaders, on the other hand, are saying, “We would like for you to come back, simply because of the enhanced productivity you get from collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, et cetera. Right now, almost half of the people desire some remote or hybridization in their work structure. Forty-eight percent say they will seek a remote position for their next role. We also know that people working remotely or in a hybridized environment are more likely than employees on-site full-time to recommend their employer as a place to work.

On organizations moving to a hybrid-work model:

The thing getting attention right now is “proximity bias,” which means you’re more likely to be recognized as a strong performer, to get a promotion and have positive things happen as an employee, when you are in closer proximity to the people you work with every day, particularly your boss. This is problematic for people who work more in hybridized or remote structures.

Even two days a week remote, three days in the office, letting employees choose which work for them, is becoming less popular. Employers and employees are finding that on any given day, [it’s hard to predict] who will be where and when. And that’s creating discord and some negative consequences in the workplace. 

We’re also seeing employers say for the entire company, “We will be remote on Mondays and Fridays and we will be fully in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. You’re expected to comply with that.” Being more prescriptive in an agile model is the sweet spot.

On what organizations need to know when bringing employees back into the office on a more regular schedule:

Research shows that 72% of companies say they would prefer to have everybody back in the office. But the reality is, it’s not happening at the degree employers would like. They have a tough time answering the question of whether we are better when we’re all in the same place for five days a week.

A good communication strategy about why you’re bringing people back and what you expect to gain is one of the first and most important steps. Many employers are putting defined workforce strategies into place to entice people to come back. They’re saying, “This is advantageous to you and to the organization.” They make their arguments based on collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, productivity and outcomes. 

Employers are also addressing well-being issues associated with employees working remotely or in hybridized environments. [These employees are] spending a lot of time alone, looking at computer screens.

To help employees understand the advantages of being back in a more social environment, organizations need to help employees understand the tools and resources available to them around mental health and mental well-being.

On ways leadership can respond to employees pushing back against returning to the office:

The employer gets to dictate the terms and conditions of work, but should look at the advantages and disadvantages. Make good decisions about what should be happening.

Employers have to work doubly hard to ensure that individuals in remote situations have the same access to knowledge, information and technology. That they have the same opportunity to contribute and to be successful.  

But it’s harder to ensure that everyone working virtually is as engaged in the meeting as if you were sitting around a table observing the body language. We know that teamwork is more challenging whenever you’re not physically together. We are seeing more and more employers require some type of physical closeness, even if you are considered a remote employee. 

On how the uncertain economy affects remote work:

We are facing economic headwinds, high inflation, but we are not in a labor recession. There are still more than two jobs open for every person looking for work in this country. 

We have a significant skills gap, but the opportunity for upskilling, new skilling and reskilling is available to just about anybody with a computer and internet access. Employers are clamoring for workers with the right skills. 

However, we are also seeing layoffs. But it’s still a prime time to be looking for a job, to be looking for a new skill and opportunity.

On work trends we should monitor in 2023:

We will continue to see this very tight labor market. We’re going to continue to see skill development, what I mentioned earlier with upskilling, new skilling and reskilling, because there is such a dearth [of needed skills] out there right now. 

We will continue to see employees be incredibly selective in whom they choose to work with and for. Managers and leaders who are authentic and genuine, who provide near-constant or continuous feedback and who are coaches will do well with employees.

There will be a continued and enhanced focus on the employer brand. Job seekers are going to pay particular attention to online ratings for employers. Managing your brand reputation and your brand, as an employer, is going to continue to be critically important. Employees now and in the future will make selection decisions before they ever apply for a job at your organization.  

Employers are just now beginning to realize that. And this presents a big challenge for talent-acquisition teams and recruiters, who will have to be promoting against and recruiting against what could be a challenging environment. 

Return to Current Issue The Future of Work | March 2023
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