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Return to Office is Dead – Or Is It?
Jarboe, Emily
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Return to Office is Dead – Or Is It?

Thoughts on Remote Work

By: Jay Meschke

Can we finally take a deep breath regarding the pandemic? I'm not sure we can, and there are many substantial changes impacting employers that have arisen from the remote work phenomenon.

Did I personally like the remote work continuum? Absolutely! I never felt more productive in my entire career. Did business suffer? If you were in hospitality, entertainment or one of several other industries, once again, absolutely! But, there were many businesses and organizations that thrived like never before.

Challenges of Remote Work (That May Surprise You)

People are returning to the workplace in droves. Yes, there are some businesses that have elected to go 100% remote, and perhaps that works for their business model. Just look at a company like PwC, which announced in September 2021 that all 40,000 of its employees could work virtually. However, I’m starting to see many negatives arising out of the remote work scenario.

The Truth About Younger Generations and Remote Work

First, there may be a fallacy that millennials and Gen Z employees are clamoring for remote work. According to a new study from Skynova, going remote may not be the answer. In fact, this study found that 58% of Gen Z workers are planning to leave their remote job in the next year, and most of them said they want a hybrid or in-person position. Why? The same study cited that 61% of Gen Z employees said it was challenging to make friends when they worked fully remote. Additionally, 39% of the same respondents found it difficult to find a mentor and network with other professionals. What conclusions can be drawn? Unlike what we as business leaders surmised, there’s a large subset of the population that wants to be in the office because their social lives are embedded in the workplace.

Difficulty in Separating Work from Home Life

Second, another large percentage of people wish to escape their work-at-home-life. They want a break from the kids, they feel the working conditions are too close quarters with other family members and others flat out want a change of scenery.

Struggling to Effectively Manage a Virtual Workforce

Third, perhaps the biggest challenge of all is how to manage remote workers. Many business leaders are struggling with trying to build and sustain cohesive cultures. Remote employees tend to be “free agents” who do not benefit from hallway conversations or impromptu strategy sessions. Not that they're being excluded, but remote workers are simply not around for these valuable connections.

What naturally happens? The remote employee starts feeling isolated and may develop non-clinical paranoia that they’re being excluded from important information. Disaffection may set in, and feelings of animosity start to fester beneath the surface. When these natural human emotions take over, they may put two and two together and come up with the wrong answer regarding their value or worth in an organization. Feelings of trust start to erode — whether it is real or perceived.

Remote, Hybrid or In-Office Work – Suggestions for Evolving Environments

So, what is the answer? No one knows for sure because this environment is still so new. Here are a few ideas and suggestions to employ in the short run:

  • Require a certain number of regularly scheduled in-person meetings to positively impact culture.
  • Set up smaller employee groups to meet on a consistent basis to become better acquainted — particularly between legacy employees and new hires.
  • Put some responsibility back on the remote employee. It’s an accommodation and a privilege to work remotely, not an entitlement. When that plum project or promotion opportunity arises, will a remote worker be viewed differently than someone who has developed and fostered relationships across an organization on a face-to-face basis? You betcha! Accordingly, communicate this reality to the employee populace — not as a threat or an ultimatum but to be realistic and transparent.
  • Creativity with supervisory subtleties is required to be a two-way street. People have become numb to virtual happy hours, virtual scavenger hunts and the like. There are other ways to help foster meaningful work relationships, such as:
    • Pairing individuals on a collaborative basis to work on a meaningful project
    • Setting aside time for social chat; scheduling a call that is purely social
    • Providing mentors/sponsors for virtually everyone, starting upon the first day of onboarding
  • Utilize in-office and out-of-office technologies to track accountability and promote a cohesive understanding of work hours and non-work hours.
  • Recognize that we’re living in a new age of work arrangements, which may never revert to pre-pandemic, historical workplace environments. Therefore, know and understand that both employers and employees need to embrace flexibility rather than focus upon remote versus non-remote.

Navigating the Future of Work

A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report disclosed that 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in March 2022 — an all-time high. Similarly, there were 11.5 million job openings noted in the same report, also a record. Some economists, specifically one from ZipRecruiter, claimed that the major reason for quitting was to find a remote opportunity. Obviously, there are highly conflicting views, opinions and statistics bombarding the general public every day. Who should you trust? Ask your own employees and be prepared to adjust. The full story is yet to be written.

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