When will business return to normal — and what will ‘normal’ look like?

The days of wall-to-wall Zoom meetings may soon be coming to a close.

Facebook, Microsoft, and Uber have already begun returning employees to their headquarters on a part-time basis. Surprisingly, Google recently announced plans to limit remote work for most employees to 14 days per year.

For most companies, a ton of uncertainty remains about how to manage the return to the workplace. At Lightspeed, we’re keenly interested in understanding COVID’s impact on startups. So we surveyed more than 328 companies, asking founders, COOs, and HR professionals how they’re preparing for the return of remote employees.

Over the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about the pandemic inspiring organizations to forgo their expensive office leases and go completely remote. While it turns out the death of the office has been greatly exaggerated, how and where people work in the future will change irrevocably.

For most of the organizations we surveyed, when and how they’re going back remains a question mark. More than 80 percent of companies either haven’t finalized their return plans or haven’t communicated them to employees yet.

You can find the full survey results here. I’d like to highlight some of the top takeaways:

1. Flexible work will become the new normal

The work-from-home experiment has been run, and now organizations are returning to a mix of on-site and remote. Before COVID, nearly two-thirds of companies operated full-time inside offices. Post pandemic, only 6 percent will go back to that model. 65 percent plan to adopt a flexible model, with employees in the office at least some of the time.

This presents challenges most companies have never dealt with before now. Flexible models are actually more challenging to navigate than in-office or fully remote. For example, companies may need to implement entirely different processes for on-boarding, managing, compensation, and developing employees.

2. Employees will demand greater control

Before COVID, working from home was typically considered a perk; only 34 percent of employees at companies offered flexible or remote work environments. After COVID, roughly 91 percent of companies plan to adopt some form of remote work.

Flexible work arrangements are now table stakes. This has implications for recruiting, managing, and office locations.

3. Flexibility will vary by job function

There is no one-size-fits-all flexible work structure. 28 percent of companies base their plans on job functions, with engineering teams having the most flexibility and office management the least. Another 27 percent intend to plan office returns on a predictable schedule — for example, having employees in office Monday through Wednesday.

4. Expect a return to the office to be voluntary through 2021

Half of all companies will let employees decide when they feel comfortable returning and another 29 percent say it depends on the job function.

Just over a third of companies have not yet decided when to return. Of the rest, all but 8 percent expect to be back in the office before the end of September. Even companies with a set date should plan for timelines to shift.

5. Relocation may not affect salaries

The ability to work from anywhere has inspired some employees to leave expensive tech hubs and settle in areas with a lower cost of living. Surprisingly, 50 percent of respondents will not adjust salaries based on location. This will likely result in employees optimizing for cost of living.

It’s decision time

Re-defining company structures during a pandemic has put tremendous strain on entrepreneurs. While these are essential plans to get right, the lack of definitive information results in multiple planning cycles pulling founders away from finding product/market fit, building great teams, growing revenue, or staying capitalized.

However, more than a year into the pandemic, employees and candidates are demanding clarity. The ‘wait and see’ approach is not going to work forever. Companies that wait too long risk losing valuable employees and key hires.

Regardless of the ultimate decision, it’s a good idea for every company to do a thorough internal audit of its strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities, so it can make the necessary preparations to support a changing workforce. LifeLabs, a training and development company, created a helpful hybrid work audit framework.

The new normal remains a constantly moving target, but eventually, everyone will need to take a shot at it.

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