Going into the office keeps us connected with co-workers, the organization, and the rumor mill. Working from home (WFH) – for those of us with compatible households and sufficient resources – can create an opportunity for focused productivity and reduced-stress days. Even as we all struggle to find the optimal COVID-19 response, corporate America is taking notes on our economy’s diverse experiments where work happens and wondering how the results should drive long-term strategy.
Here’s a prediction: Post-pandemic, millions and millions of office denizens will regularly spend one to four days per week working from home. And they and their employers will prosper and profit in this arrangement.
A SHRM survey conducted in May 2020 supports this outlook. More than two-thirds of organizations said “they probably or definitely will adopt broader or more flexible work-from-home policies for all workers.” Some 26% of employers said they would probably or definitely allow workers who hadn’t previously worked remotely to do so permanently.
Before the pandemic, WFH was a glacial trend
For decades, widespread work from home has been heralded as just around the corner. But until the pandemic, many organizations kept WFH at arm’s length, reserving it for exceptional situations. Only 12% of Americans worked at home at least one day per month in 2017-18, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“What’s tripping us up is social expectations, office norms for how and where we work,” says Howell Malham, president of GreenHouse Innovation. “The real question is: How can we optimize for productivity and performance?”
But COVID-19 forced a revolution on corporations that previously were conservative on place of work, whatever their leaders preached about embracing change. Biological lightning struck the stigma long attached to WFH. Since the onset of pandemic lockdowns, most people perceive work from home in a more positive light, according to a May 2020 survey headed by Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University.
What employees want: The half-in-office workweek
A plurality of American workers now want to be like Goldilocks, going into the office neither too much nor too little, according to a Morning Consult study conducted in June 2020. Working from home 1 to 4 days per week is preferred by 43% of employees whose jobs can be done remotely. Nearly one-third said they’d prefer to work from home all the time; almost one-quarter prefer to go to the office every day.
“People find work-from-home incredibly valuable,” says Bloom. In the Stanford survey, employees said the ability to work from home is worth 13% of their wages.
Yes, a substantial fraction of workers say they’d be happy to never again regularly commute. But in the long term, that could be a strategy for stagnation and declining morale. “For people to be creative and motivated and to imbibe the company culture, they need to come into the office,” Bloom says.
“Esprits de corps – that’s not something I bring home with me very well,” says Mary Stevens, an editor who ran a specialty publication and its website, splitting her workweek between three days at home and two days commuting 75 miles each way.
The upside potential of a hybrid workweek
A hybrid workweek may offer a number of advantages to employers and their employees.
Workers will enjoy reduced commuting time and costs, and if their circumstances permit, better work-life harmony. And whether a worker is a telemarketer or a journalist, a controlled home-office environment may be more conducive to top performance than a noisy cube farm rife with distractions. “I feel a lot less self-conscious if I’m doing interviews from home, with the door shut,” says Stevens.
Employers can look forward to reduced office leasing costs, assuming half-in-office workers share desks. Organizations might also see increased productivity when work is performed at home, as some initial studies indicate. Companies may also see improved employee retention, as Bloom found in a study of Ctrip, a Chinese travel agency with 16,000 employees. The onboarding and acculturation of new hires is bound to be more effective with split WFH/in-office schedules than with full-time WFH.
The challenges of alternating in-office days
The hybrid workweek also presents challenges.
Workers often have territorial feelings about their personal workspaces. Especially as office leases come up for renewal, many employers will expect to reap savings by doubling up employees on desks or hotdesking, both of which are fraught strategies as long as the pandemic continues.
Organizations might find it’s more difficult to organize cross-departmental meetings. One strategy is to set one day per week or month when everyone is in-office. But that solution raises its own issues: If your office space has been reorganized and downsized for alternating schedules, where do you put everyone on the all-hands day?
Beware of equity issues
Hybrid schedules raise critical issues of equity.
Begin with the fact that higher-income professionals are much more likely to have jobs that can be performed at home, according to the Brookings study. Working parents with greater income can better afford childcare in or near their homes. Then there’s the digital divide: 92% of adults who earn $75,000 or more use broadband at home, while nearly half (44%) of workers making less than $30,000 lack high-speed internet, according to a 2019 survey from Pew Research.
A typical employee spends 12 hours and about $1,000 setting up a home office, according to Bloom. Many workers lack the savings to bear these costs. Will employers step up to help employees create a well-equipped workspace in their homes?
By providing a level playing field for communications in a workforce with hybrid schedules, digital platforms can reduce inequality on another key dimension: professional opportunity. Workhuman® Cloud applications help organizations ensure that all team members are full participants in a half-and-half world of work. Learn more here.
About the AuthorMore Content by John Rossheim