For a short time, it seemed COVID was in the rearview mirror, and we were returning to life as we knew it. But with the spread of Delta and other variants, we’ve had to push the pause button on many plans including a return to the office. Eventually, most businesses will bring employees back; some moving faster than others. In order to successfully address the challenges, we need to consider the evolving workplace. What can you and your employees expect in the near term? How can you make the necessary changes to position your firm for the future?
Start by asking yourself these questions:
- Do your employees want to return to the office?
The first major hurdle employers face is that many employees do not want to return to the office. This, along with burnout, a new focus on work-life priorities and other factors, has led to a significant increase in the number of employees resigning their positions. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that from April to June 2021, a total of 11.5 million workers quit their jobs.[i] During COVID, employees experienced life without a lengthy commute or endless meetings, which provided new opportunities to focus on self and family. As a result, you may find that if you require employees to return to the office, some may refuse. What should you do?
- Can you accommodate employees wanting to work remotely without hurting your business?
The first step for firms is to assess job roles to determine which positions can be done at home and which require an employee to be in the office. For example, let’s consider a traditional receptionist position. While calls can be routed to them using technology, other duties like handling snail mail, greeting clients, visitors, and vendors, cannot be done from home. This created challenges in financial advisory firms during the pandemic as someone had to go to the office to collect mail. However, there may be other solutions.
These job assessments are crucial to making good decisions regarding remote work and how best to implement hybrid or other flexible work arrangements. Importantly, this analysis may also reveal opportunities to make changes that you otherwise may not have considered including merging positions and rethinking job functions.
For smaller businesses, offering an alternative work arrangement can be difficult given the limited head count but it may be necessary. They must take an innovative and strategic approach to staffing.
- What will a return to work look like?
Employers must figure out what works best for them, but it is likely that many workplaces will look like this:
- Hybrid schedules. Employees in positions deemed appropriate for remote work will be allowed to adopt a hybrid schedule where they are in the office for a specific number of days during the week and the rest of the time they work from home. For positions that cannot be fully remote, firms may provide flexibility to work one day a week from home every other week or something similar. This allows all employees to participate in a hybrid schedule on some level. We can expect more firms to adopt a formal Remote Work Policy, so expectations are clearly communicated.
- Flexible work schedules. This will be key, particularly for working mothers or employees who are caregivers. Providing flexible hours will be an alternative for positions that cannot be done remotely on a full-time basis. This could mean working outside the firm’s core hours or for a few hours in the morning, leaving to care for children or others, and logging on later in the afternoon to complete the day.
- Elimination of some positions. The administrative role is very different today than it was five years ago. This evolution will continue, and we will likely see some positions merge with others. For example, the traditional receptionist position is likely to evolve to where there is no one sitting at the front desk, if there is a front desk. Calls will be answered using an automated system and if a caller must speak with someone, it will be answered by the client service team and handled appropriately. When visitors arrive, the door will be locked and they will ring a bell to signal their arrival. A designated team member will then greet them. In financial services firms, this can make sense because often it’s the client service associate who has a relationship with the client so greeting them and preparing them for a meeting won’t diminish the client experience.
- What challenges are likely?
Employers are concerned about the impact of working from home on the culture. However, workplace culture is always evolving. Employers have an opportunity to adapt their culture, so it is an inclusive environment whether someone works in the office or not. Technology provides new ways for employees to engage with others and if employers and employees work together to develop solutions to some of these concerns, then everyone is part of the solution. As the leader of the firm, you don’t have to have all the answers and involving staff makes the process participatory.
Many employers have also expressed concern that the value of impromptu conversations is lost when working from home. This is another opportunity for employers to adapt their strategy to support continued employee interaction using new tools and resources. Consider adding 10 minutes at the front of some meetings and use it for “talk” time. Employees aren’t walking together to the conference room but they’re able to connect before the meeting for an impromptu discussion.
Finally, technology is altering most people’s jobs. Even if you are not making changes now, you should work with staff to help them gain the skills needed for the evolving workforce. Owners and managers should focus on skill development to benefit employees and the firm.
This is the start of the changes we are going to see in the future workplace. In our next blog we will discuss the eight-hour workday.