It might be the fastest shift in labor trends since the Industrial Revolution. When COVID-19 hit, more than 40% of the global workforce left their office. Almost overnight, employees across the world started juggling the stresses and joys of working from home. Along the way, they learned to get used to it
But is the remote working trend truly here to stay? The cracks are beginning to show.
For one, the average meeting has increased by 10 minutes during the lockdowns. Team members who used to rely on in-person interactions have to simulate them in pre-scheduled meetings. Additionally, Microsoft observed the following trends between February 2020 and February 2021:
The result? An exhausted workforce. Self-assessed productivity among workers remains high. But 54% of workers now report feeling overworked.
Before the world gets back to work, it needs to resolve a disconnect. Employees and executives don’t see eye-to-eye on remote work just yet.
The overall trend is that employees prefer remote work. 55% of employees say they would rather work remotely 3 times per week. Other statistics suggest the preference for remote work may be as high as 80% among employees.
But executives prefer in-person communication. One survey saw 68% of executives hoping for employees in the office at least 3 days per week. Additionally, fewer than 13% say that they’re willing to stick with remote work for good.
And science may support executives’ conclusions. According to the Harvard Business Review, “studies have long shown that frequent in-person interactions lead to commitment, support, and cooperation among people on teams.”
What’s more, leaders believe that “impromptu encounters at the office help keep [them] honest,” according to Jared Spataro, CVP at Microsoft 365.
A hybrid workplace—which gives employees a choice over where they want to get their work completed—creates a happy medium between the 2 preferences. That’s likely why 2/3 of executives have said they’re willing to try it.
It can be tough to let go of a work situation that allows for sweatpants and a 10-foot commute. But even employees understand that there are real benefits to working in an office.
One executive in France told the Harvard Business Review that since he already had a flexible work schedule, he didn’t anticipate a struggle with remote work. He soon found out that was wrong. “By early July,” wrote HBR, “despite being in virtual meetings almost all day every day, he was lonely and pining to see his coworkers face-to-face.”
Improved feelings of community aren’t the only reason to return to the office. There are other questions that companies have to ask themselves in order to make a hybrid model work for them:
The office environment means micro-interactions throughout the day. The office water cooler was something of a village well: a place to rest, gather, converse, and catch up. Remote work doesn’t offer a water cooler.
“Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it’s hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company,” says Hannah McConnaughey, product marketing manager at Microsoft.
The chief purpose of office gatherings, according to workers, is to collaborate. Tools like Slack and Zoom keep people connected, but employees still don’t have the same means to build social relationships with coworkers.
It’s no secret that highly engaged teams tend to outperform the rest. But is it possible to generate engagement through a computer screen?
Gallup noted that organizations like Yahoo and IBM experimented with culture-building via remote work, but the companies later abandoned these initiatives. This suggests that a hybrid approach can help employees generate in-person engagement with the flexibility of added remote work.
What if one employee’s days at the office don’t overlap with another’s? What happens when teams constantly have to shuffle disparate schedules?
Employers may have to re-evaluate the way they think about the workweek. 74% of office workers already support a 4-day workweek. A 3-day office workweek may help employees get a better handle on their schedules while promoting in-person collaboration.
Despite the challenges, it is possible for remote teams to generate engagement. Some remote workers even self-report more engagement than in-office workers.
The key, according to the Gallup polls, is in making employees feel that their opinions matter. Remote work can make collaboration effective, but it has to involve everyone’s input.
If the past year or so has taught us anything, it’s that none of us have a crystal ball. However, a hybrid workplace might be the best solution for future work. Remote workers and executives alike will have to find a happy medium between entirely remote work and a full return to the office.
The good news is that the “transition” may end up being the best solution, and a hybrid model may help the productivity, collaboration, and stress levels of everyone involved.