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Remote Work 2 Years Later: What We’ve Learned

(Illustration: Ian Moore)

WFH employees have FOMO. In-office employees feel lost in mostly empty offices. Here’s what’s working and what’s not, more than two years into the pandemic.

By Chandra Steele

After more than two years, the view from home offices might not have changed. But much about the day-to-day of remote work has.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, one of the biggest collective changes was that nearly all but essential workers found their offices and homes became one. At the time, we looked at how this exploded many of the myths that had surrounded the impossibility of largely remote workforces, and after a year had gone by, we fully realized some of the short-term and long-term challenges of working from home. Today, we’re facing new ones, as companies and their employees struggle with the new normal.

Once the nation had the opportunity to get vaxxed and boosted last summer and many local COVID-related mandates were dropped, it seemed offices would soon teem with employees. But after waves of Delta and Omicron variants, plans were pushed back and many workplaces braced themselves for an indefinitely remote future.

This uncertainty has led to a haphazard situation for many companies and a confusing one for employees. Some employees have taken their first steps back into the office, either part of the time or full-time. Others have either moved too far away to go back or have deemed a commute unworthy of their time or money, especially given rising gas prices.

The 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index reported that 50% of mid-level managers said their companies are making plans to return to in-person work five days a week in the year ahead, but 52% of employees are considering going hybrid or remote.

From the 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index

Company Expectations vs. Employee Preferences

Tech companies have delayed return-to-office dates many times over, but more solid plans are being enacted this spring. All eyes are on the big four—Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta (Facebook)—as smaller companies look to take cues from their moves.

Amazon hasn’t made too many announcements about its policies but has left the return to work for corporate employees up to individual teams. As of April 11, Apple requires that its corporate employees work from the office one day a week. On May 2, they’ll be required to be there two days a week, and on May 23 that goes up to three days a week. Google’s campus has begun to fill up again, as of April 4 when it said most employees should be in the office three days a week. Google employees can apply for a remote-work extension if they do not want to return to the office quite yet. Meta employees started returning to the office on March 28, though they had the opportunity to request an extension to work from home for up to five more months or to be moved to full-time remote work.

The more stringent the policy, the more it’s been met with resistance from employees. Bloomberg reported that Apple employees haven’t taken the dawn of the return to the office well. It quoted one anonymous former employee who left the company partly over the policy, “Everything happened with us working from home all day, and now we have to go back to the office, sit in traffic for two hours, and hire people to take care of kids at home. Working from home has so many perks. Why would we want to go back?”

It’s a prevalent attitude that’s reflected in the Microsoft Work Trend Index. Fifty-four percent of managers said they feel that leadership at their company is out of touch with employee expectations.

People are unwilling to lose hours of their day to the things they find most frustrating about work, such as commuting and the drudgery of office life.

One in three employees (32%) said they would quit their job if they could no longer work remotely after the pandemic in Owl Labs’ 2021 State in Remote Work report. More than half (56%) said they would quit or look for a new job that offered flexibility in when they work, 58% would expect a pay raise to stay, and 48% said they would stay but would be less willing to go the extra mile.

While the pandemic has exposed the many challenges of working remotely, it has also made the benefits clear. People are unwilling to lose hours of their day to the things they find most frustrating about work, such as commuting and the drudgery of office life. Employees who want a better work-life balance believe they can find it with flexible hybrid work schedules. Owl Labs found that 71% would prefer hybrid or remote work even when the pandemic ends.

It’s Not One Workplace for All

While offices are a collective place of work, they’re experienced individually. And for some individuals, that experience is not as welcoming as it is for others. This is reflected in women, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and those with disabilities being less inclined to want to return to the office than others.

These groups can face microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace. Working from home didn’t relieve them of all those burdens, but it did lessen some of their effects. In an Axios/Harris Poll survey, 52% of Black workers and 50% of women said they felt working from home is better when it comes to advancing in their careers, compared with 42% of men.

Women (52%) said they enjoy working remotely and would like to do so in the long term, compared with 41% of men. When schools went remote at the beginning of the pandemic, the majority of childcare fell on women. It caused a drastic drop in the number of women in the workforce that’s only now coming back and slowly at that. In the March 2022 jobs report from the Bureau of Statistics, 249,000 women joined the labor force. This reduces the number of women missing from the labor force to 872,000 from 1.1 million at its pandemic peak. Though schools are open again, their hours being at odds with working hours have always posed a problem for parents. And childcare costs are higher than ever, at an average of $10,000 per year.

Remote work or a flexible hybrid schedule relieves major issues for marginalized groups in the workplace.

(Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)

Making Hybrid Work Work

For now, a hybrid model seems to be most prevalent, though how that looks in practice differs from company to company. For some, it means a plan like Apple’s with set in-office days companywide. For others, those days are left up to the discretion of management or even employees. Hybrid can also mean a mix of employees who come into the office full-time or just occasionally, as well as some who remain remote full-time.

While a hybrid workplace can offer the most flexibility, it doesn’t come without challenges. At a time of divisions, this split has further widened a crucial gap: that between employees. With hybrid workplaces, WFH employees can have FOMO while in-office employees can feel lost in mostly empty offices.

In-office employees have found themselves spending time commuting only to sit in an office and spend the day not interacting with anyone there and having a Zoom meeting or two. Meanwhile, those still working remote can feel ignored when they’re logged on to a Zoom meeting and see their colleagues in a conference room having side conversations that they’re not a part of.

Companies have to set up policies for hybrid workplaces that make for a unified office culture no matter how far apart employees are from each other or the office. They should make sure that if employees are required to be in the office, it’s because it’s essential for performing their jobs. And when employees do come in, it should be with coordinated schedules that are built around dedicated tasks.

Even those who enjoy working from home might miss the office for other reasons, such as a purely work-focused space, the camaraderie of colleagues, or a slight sense of normalcy after the last two years.

Slack, which has been essential for corralling colleagues during COVID, has made significant changes to its own culture and even its office space in that time. The company told us that it has redesigned its offices for flexible work, shifting away from spaces primarily set up for individual work and embracing shared space for team-building, project kickoffs, on-sites, and social activities.

“What’s gone is the assumption that the office is where work happens; we want people to have the flexibility to do work where and when they’re at their best,” said Brian Elliott, senior vice president at Slack and head of the company’s Digital-First Task Force.

(Photo: AndreyPopov/Getty Images)

Elliott is the co-author of How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives, and he detailed the way Slack is implementing technology and policies to create an equal office experience wherever the office happens to be. “We’re planning for all events with an in-person component to be hybrid by default, and investing in tools and processes that will help create a seamless and inclusive experience for those participating remotely—from upgrading our in-room A/V capabilities to placing additional laptop stands in all conference rooms (to encourage a “one screen per person” approach when dialing into video calls) to sharing best practices like assigning a designated hybrid meeting moderator who ensures remote participants are seen and heard.”

It’s a big change for a company that had a remote workforce of just 3% before the pandemic. Elliott said it is “digital-first” but that doesn’t mean “never in person.”

But even those who enjoy working from home might miss the office for other reasons, such as a purely work-focused space, the camaraderie of colleagues, or a slight sense of normalcy after the last two years. While those things still exist even in workplaces that aren’t fully occupied, employees aren’t finding all that they left behind when they go back.

Fringe Benefits

There have been some unpleasant new realities faced by those returning to the office. Lots of workplace perks have disappeared in the pandemic. Fully stocked kitchens are a lot barer since they have to feed a much smaller fraction of a workforce. Free gym memberships didn’t make much sense when gyms were closed and the benefit at some companies didn’t return when their doors reopened.

Even Silicon Valley companies with acres of campus space and seemingly endless benefits have reduced what they offer. Meta no longer offers laundry and dry-cleaning services for its employees. And for those who would race to pack a to-go box or two with a free dinner from one of the many on-campus restaurants before they took the free shuttle home, even running at Olympic speeds won’t allow them to partake of both perks. Dinner has been moved to 6:30 p.m. while the last shuttle leaves at 6 p.m. And while there have been lots of short-term enticements to get employees to return to the office (Google went so far as to throw a Lizzo concert), there aren’t a lot of lasting ones.

But there are some perks that have evolved into ones more suited to remote work. Companies, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, set up stipends to outfit home offices. Childcare, which has always been a concern for working parents, became more of one. And benefits have expanded to include longer paid leave for parents, more flexible schedules, backup childcare services, and even tutoring stipends. Wellness benefits, particularly pertaining to mental health, have increased. Last year Care.com surveyed 500 HR leaders and C-suite decision-makers on the future of benefits and related initiatives. Ranked high on their list of planned changes: health and fitness discounts (51%), mental health support (51%), and wellness benefits (39%).

From Care.com: The Future of Benefits 2021

LYLA was born out of the pandemic as a way for companies to offer very practical benefits to employees. Whether employees have returned to the office or not, the stress of dealing with the upheaval of life during a pandemic while trying to keep a job is overwhelming and so many things on to-do lists never get done. This is where LYLA’s founder and CEO Marsha McVicker saw an opportunity to help. She transitioned her previous company Errand Solutions, which had handled concierge-type requests, into an app that can be offered as a benefit.

McVicker said that each request that comes through is handled by an LYLA team member who is supported by an AI platform. She used a hypothetical spring break trip as an example of how a request is handled. “It’s not just about booking a hotel and being like, ‘have a nice trip!’ We might start by offering to connect the employee with a financial wellness coach to determine their most healthy budget. Then design a vacation that works well for their 3-year-old and their 16-year-old-and find emotional support for the one with flying anxiety, so they feel safer getting on an airplane. Meanwhile, we’re ensuring someone will visit to grab the mail, water the plants, and love on the dog while the family is gone. It’s about creating this collective, cohesive experience where employees feel really supported from all angles.”

Even with people getting together again, both in and out of the workplace, the isolation of the pandemic isn’t easily shaken off.

Intuit was one of LYLA’s first adopters. Ann Martinez, the workplace offerings leader at the company, said that the company was seeking a way to support employee well-being during the pandemic. “With LYLA, we know that the 80% of our employees who prefer a hybrid work model, as well as those who return to a fully in-person schedule, will continue to feel supported and appreciated, and that’s incredibly important to us,” Martinez said.

Individual Attention

Even with people getting together again, both in and out of the workplace, the isolation of the pandemic isn’t easily shaken off. The psychic damage of the pandemic remains, particularly when instead of collective action against COVID, there was contention among so many.

Companies would do well to set up an outreach system for employees of all levels to really check in on their individual needs and concerns. Forego formal surveys for a more human touch of a one-on-one chat by phone or Slack. Because no matter how remote we might be from one another in our workplaces at present, we’ve all lived through a trying time and could benefit from some connection.

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.



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