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Companies are at an inflection point when it comes to a successful post-pandemic workplace

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Key Points
  • For vast majority of companies, a return to the office will involve a hybrid approach.
  • Pwc survey shows 83% of companies say remote work has been successful.
  • Only 13% say they're ready to let go of office for good.
Senior human resources and financial executives say work will be hybrid, with both work from home and some return to offices part of a new normal, and figuring out how to relieve employee stress and isolation are top concerns.
Clara Margais | picture alliance via Getty Images

Last year, in the weeks and months following the swift and massive move to remote work forced by the pandemic, company executives were already making plans about how to return to the office once things got "back to normal."

A year later, with more than 500,000 Americans dead from the virus, the conversations are far different. Today, the vaccine rollout is expanding, and though new cases of the virus are increasing in some states, the overall numbers are down, leading to reasons for optimism. But companies are now discovering that a return to the office, whether later this year or next, is more complex than resuming pre-pandemic ways. Leaders are sorting through new schedules for workers, how office space should be reconfigured, and the best ways to deploy technology so that when people are working from home, they don't get left out of discussions.

Organizations of all sizes are at an inflection point. The pandemic has given business leaders a unique chance to hit restart and redefine the workplace to better reflect the needs and preferences of their employees. For some companies, that will mean bringing workers back into the office as soon as it's deemed safe. Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup recently told the Wall Street Journal that she imagines "everyone back in the [office]. I do think from a cultural point of view—apprenticeship, the sense of belonging—you are better together." Others, such as Twitter, Square, and Shopify are among the companies making remote work permanent.

A hybrid approach

But for the vast majority of companies, a return to the office will likely involve a hybrid approach, offering employees the flexibility to work a few days at home and a few days in person. In a recent PwC survey, 83% of participants say remote work has been successful for their company, yet only 13% say they're ready to let go of the office for good. The overwhelming majority say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships.

"Before the pandemic the biggest question was whether remote work could produce the kind of productivity we see when folks are in the office," says Sean Woodroffe, chief human resources officer at investment giant TIAA. "Well, that experiment is validated. Now we're trying to marry the best of the last year with a slow return to office life."

TIAA's "Work for My Day" approach will give all 15,000 employees the opportunity to create a hybrid work schedule that is a fluid mix of on-site and virtual work each week. Before the pandemic, about 85% to 90% of employees worked in the office; when the new plan goes into effect in 2022, Woodroffe anticipates that about 80% of employees will have a hybrid schedule. "We know from numerous studies that engagement drives productivity, and we have a chance to really get employees engaged as they're thinking about coming back to work," he says.

Wanting office life again

An online Harris Poll of virtual and hybrid workers conducted on behalf of software company Ceridian, revealed that 83% of workers want to return to the office full time at some point. A little over half of them say they feel isolated from their colleagues working remotely, and 36% feel that working at home has negatively impacted their career growth.

As companies look to address these sentiments among their workforce, Susan Tohyama, chief human resources officer of Ceridian, believes flexibility and more employee decision-making can help alleviate these challenges.

Talk to employees about what works best for them, their mental well-being, and their families. You'll get a much happier workforce.
Susan Tohyama, chief human resources officer at Ceridian

"Employees understand best what they need in terms of in-office and remote work," she says. "They like the fact that some days they can work home and still be able to get their kids from school. That speaks directly to well-being, and we know that well-being equals engagement and motivation, and therefore productivity."

Finding balance

Not to be overlooked either, say human resources professionals, is the simple act of not commuting. Woodroffe of TIAA says employees in the company's hub locations in New York City, Chicago and Denver have been able to eliminate the grind of traveling to and from these congested urban areas. It's unlikely, he adds, that they're going to want to do that five days a week when offices reopen.

And of course, companies have seen over the past year how much wider a net they can cast for talent when a job isn't tied to a specific location. "By allowing for flexibility, we're allowing for inclusivity and more access to talent from around the world," says Tohyama. "If you want to have an engaged, empowered workforce, you can't go back to having a mandated human resources practice." Even before the pandemic, she says Ceridian's employees had the option of working remotely.

"I don't think companies should be thinking of this as all in or all out," she adds. "Talk to employees about what works best for them, their mental well-being, and their families. You'll get a much happier workforce."