Erin Bloom is the Head of Culture and Community at Aquent where she oversees their remote work policies, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion programs, and internal communications.
As vaccination rates increase, city and state-mandated restrictions are easing, and the weather gets nicer, people are eager to venture out of their homes. People are flocking back to restaurants, shops, gyms, and vacation spots; however, there is less of an enthusiastic return to the office. As of June, only 31% of workers have returned to their office. Companies that called for a summer return to the office (even partially) are finding it hard to actually make that happen. Employees are pushing back, preferring to work from home (fully or partially) for the foreseeable future.
The divide between the boardroom and the cubicle is becoming very clear: remote work works for employees, but can employers accept and embrace that?
Remote work, well, works.
This time last year, remote work was the only option for nearly all organizations. Leadership and employees alike embraced it at the time, but now, that is changing. According to a recent study, 83% of CEOs want their workforce to return to the office, citing a drop in productivity. This sits in stark contrast to the over 70% of employees who want flexible remote work to stay. Well, this is certainly quite the difference of opinion.
While some executives may not like remote work, it is hard to deny its benefits, not only for employees but also for most businesses. Let’s start with productivity. Senior leaders may be concerned that working remotely makes workers less productive. Perhaps they are assuming that workers are not “on” during working hours, easily distracted by their Netflix queue, or tending to children. However, that is just not true. In a recent study, 73% of workers said that working from home has improved their work-life balance and overall morale. And happier employees are approximately 13% more productive. And in case you needed more convincing, according to another study, post-pandemic productivity has actually increased, in large part due to working from home.
At Aquent, we know this from our own experience, even before COVID-19. For over a decade, a third of our employees worked from home. Did that slow our growth? No. Did that negatively affect retention? Certainly not — some of our employees have been with us for over 25 years. Because of that history, the move to a virtual-first workforce was a seamless one for us. We are letting most of our office leases expire, cutting real estate costs by 93%, allowing us to reinvest that money in our employees, who have shared that they want flexibility and choice in where they work.
Flexibility for the win.
There are many ways COVID has changed our daily lives, but perhaps the greatest impact will be on the future of work. To be more precise, the future of how we work and who is in the driver’s seat (hint: it is the talent). Remote and flexible work was a requirement for public health; now, it is the desired default for most workers. In a report from the International Workplace Group, a whopping 83% of workers said that workplace flexibility would sway them to one job over a similar one. And there are a lot of workers out there looking for new opportunities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “more than 3.9 million people quit their jobs in April of this year, marking the highest quit rate” since 2000. Some of the reasons cited for quitting range from a desire for greater flexibility to finding a better opportunity for professional growth to post-pandemic burnout. Talent know they are in control. With economic growth rebounding, bolstered by increased consumer spending, many companies are growing their teams. That is creating an incredibly competitive recruiting market. Perks like office lunches or onsite gyms are less palatable. In the post-COVID world, most businesses (77%) have cited flexibility as a differentiator when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent.
Flexibility in work location also opens up the pool of talent available. For example, if your business is headquartered in an uber-competitive city like San Francisco, attracting and retaining top UX talent will be far more difficult. Going beyond the city and state limits, you are not only accessing more candidates with deep skill sets, but also a more diverse pool of candidates. By eliminating location-based needs (and commuting), location bias is eliminated. And groups of individuals that might previously have been excluded, such as those with a disability or in a primary caregiving role, are now available to you. Diversity is not only key to creating a welcoming, productive working environment but also the bottom line.
So, why are there still leaders out there calling for their employees to return to the office, partially or fully?
Buh-bye control freak leaders; hello to empathetic leaders.
It is clear that there is a difference of opinion between leaders of organizations and the employees who work for them. Most leadership feels that it is time to get back to “normal” and back to work. First of all, the statement “get back to work” does not acknowledge the fact that many have been working longer hours at home than they did in the office for more than a year.
Second, leaders are assuming their employees feel the same way about returning to “normal.” According to Microsoft’s latest edition of their Work Trends Index, leaders (predominately white, male information workers) are out of touch with their workforce, with 61% say they’re “thriving” during and after COVID. That is juxtaposed with 37% of workers who feel their companies are asking too much from them.
If leaders really want to inspire and bolster morale, the first step is to listen to their employees. Don’t assume that you know what they want (or that it is the same as you).
For example, the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world wanted employees to return to work several days a week on a prescribed schedule, only to receive a letter signed by thousands of employees stating they felt the opposite. Employees felt leadership “actively ignored” their desire to not only continue remote work but also be able to choose the days they work from home.
COVID has redefined many parts of our lives, including the type of person needed to lead a workforce. The most successful leaders today value and prioritize emotional intelligence over transactional leadership. Employees are looking to be heard, understood, and empowered by their management. They are not looking to follow CEO-issued orders about how to work and when; they want managers to ask them, “what do you need to be successful, and how can I support you?”
Hybrid and fully remote working requires a specific set of skills to empower employees and an infrastructure to foster great communication. At Aquent, even though we were already partially remote, embracing the virtual-first model required us to make some changes to support our people. For example, we created a new role, Head of Culture and Community, that is focused on building connections between our employees and ensuring they have everything they need to be successful. And we’re reexamining the tools and technologies we use each day to support employee productivity.
At the end of the day, it’s well established that a positive employee experience drives productivity, engagement, and reduces turnover. Companies and their leadership should stop denying this reality. Those that fully embrace the remote workplace model stand to gain the most.