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What’s the future of remote work after COVID-19?

COVID-19 has turned the world of work upside down and inside out since that fateful day in March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Employers of all sizes and across every industry have had to rapidly adjust to new risks, a seemingly endless stream of shifting guidelines, and fast-changing employee and customer expectations.

Perhaps the swiftest and most dramatic change has come in the form of remote work.

Prior to the pandemic, the remote working landscape was decidedly uneven—while an increasing number of employers offered varying degrees of remote working options, for others it remained a relatively rare accommodation.

COVID-19 changed all that overnight. Large companies that traditionally had the vast majority of their workforce reporting the office daily shifted to fully remote operations in a matter of days. Meanwhile, organizations that had offered some remote working options made it the norm for most or all employees. Consider a case study on Statista.com, that found 45% of respondents reporting they have been working from home five days a week or more since COVID-19. When asked how often they worked from home prior to the pandemic, 47% said never.

What was often presented as a perk—sometimes begrudgingly—by employers became a necessity. Meanwhile, employees who were ingrained in the routine of heading to the office had to adapt to working from home and interacting via video conferences and other electronic communications.

There’s no doubt that the ability to work remotely saved many companies from ruin, and kept countless employees on the payroll throughout the pandemic. And beyond mere survival, some research has found that employees have been more productive and satisfied by working remotely some or all of the time.Now, with many of the risks associated with COVID-19 subsiding, employers are beginning to look forward and assess remote working policies moving forward. One thing is clear: COVID-19 has opened everyone’s eyes to a new way of working—and many employees are likely to resist a return to five days a week in the office. Employers will likely need to stay closely attuned to their workforce, consistently relying on employee feedback surveys and steady communication to keep pace with what their employees are thinking regarding remote working and other flexibility options if they aim to stay competitive and attract and retain the best talent.

While a return to normalcy will look different for every company, reimagining the future of work and re-acclimating an onsite workforce presents an enormous change management challenge for HR and management teams to navigate. SurveyMonkey’s Return to Work solutions can help you execute the transition successfully.

  • Deeper Dive: Read SurveyMonkey’s Chief People Officer Becky Cantieri’s take on reimagining the workplace after COVID-19

Workplace flexibility

Prior to the pandemic, the definition of workplace flexibility varied widely, often guided by a company’s culture, industry, and historic practices. For many, the rigid 9-5 in-office routine remained largely the norm while others offered varying flexibility options regarding when, where, and how employees got their work done.

The realities of working amid the pandemic —with round-the-clock demands of juggling work, family, self-care, and other obligations—has led employers and employees to change the way they think about work schedules. Workdays in which employees were fully committed to doing work for an established period of time, were scrambled by pressing demands that didn’t follow a set routine. Parents accustomed to knowing their kids were in school while they worked suddenly found themselves adjunct teachers and full-time babysitters. And employees who previously worked traditional hours discovered that knocking work out at varying times throughout the day or evening made more sense than being locked into a computer screen for 8 straight hours. 

Flexibility that became a necessity in the pandemic, has evolved into a  growing expectation of employees moving forward. Many employees have taken responsibility for crafting a customized schedule that delivers work-life balance for their unique situation, and have little interest in looking back.  According to SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, most employees are now considering work-life balance and flexibility to be the 2 most important factors when considering jobs. Companies can deepen their commitment to meeting employees needs and expectations by relying on SurveyMonkey’s employee engagement survey templates to capture key feedback from their workforce.

Flexible work can come in a wide range of forms. Some of the most common examples of flexible work schedules include:

Flextime: Provides employees the freedom to adjust their work schedules week-by-week. Employees may be required to work a set number of hours within a certain period, in order to be more flexible with their start and end times.

Compressed work week: With the compressed work-week, employees still work 40 hours per week, but within fewer days. For example, an employee may work 10-hour days in a matter of four days, in order to have the fifth day off.

Shift work: Shift work has been around for a long time in some working environments, but it has grown amid the pandemic to allow employees to move away from the traditional 9-5 workday to create a shift that might start much earlier or later, depending on their individual situation. This provides flexibility for the employee, while also providing employers with the certainty of knowing when specific employees are “on the clock.”

Part-time schedules: Part-time schedules are those in which an employee works less than the traditional 40 hours per week. This schedule can benefit anyone willing to make the likely financial tradeoff from full-time work, and can be particularly attractive to  students, parents with young children, and older workers.

Job-sharing: This type of schedule involves two part-time employees dividing the work, but performing the job equivalent to one full-time employee. The key to success here is finding 2 employees who are compatible, and share and complement one another’s strengths.

As the pandemic evolves into the next, hopefully final, stage, employers would be wise to conduct SurveyMonkey’s employee satisfaction surveys to get a benchmark of how employees are feeling, as well as getting key insights into what types of flexible working arrangements they would value the most.

Improved communication in the workplace

Communication is key. That is one of the many lasting workplace lessons from the COVID-19 crisis.

The natural flow of communications that occurred in many offices—the desk stop-by, the impromptu huddle, the weekly conference room meeting, and, of course, the tried-and-true water-cooler talk all got the kibosh from COVID-19.

Replacing them were frequent video-conferences, phone calls, e-mails, text and instant messages and a range of other electronic communications options. While face-to-face interactions are sure to increase as the pandemic subsides, electronic communications will continue to play an outsized role in how managers, and co-workers connect on a daily basis.

Clear and consistent communication is vital for the future as more employers begin to adjust or improve on their work-from-home and flexible work policies. Managers should share their preferred communication styles and channels, and their team members should do the same. 

Setting clear expectations is also important. For example, responding to emails and doing so within an appropriate time frame is helpful to everyone included in that message so they are all fully aware of expectations and deadlines. Strive for consistency in communications so people have a clear sense of when they will get a response to a question or concern. For instance, including in an email signature that others should expect responses within a certain time frame helps prevent any disconnects or miscommunication.

Another way that companies can improve communication is by scheduling weekly and bi-weekly team meetings. This lets team members know there will consistently be a set time to meet and discuss current assignments, upcoming projects, and so forth. The same concept can be applied to company-wide meetings as well.

Ultimately, clear and consistent communication can help ensure stronger employee engagement. SurveyMonkey Engage offers a comprehensive business solution built to help you holistically understand and improve employee engagement.

Hybrid workplace

Call in the Goldilocks principle—many employees as well as their employers are looking for that “just right” recipe for optimal productivity, engagement and work-life balance. And for many employees, a hybrid workplace, which blends remote and in-office work, offers the right fit. By spending part of the week on-site, the hybrid option helps address the isolation and boredom that some employees have felt working fully remotely throughout the pandemic while also facilitating the creativity and idea generation that can grow out of face-to-face communications.

According to the Hybrid Work Model, more than half of 1,200 workers said in a survey that they would prefer going to the work office three days a week, making it an attractive option for employers who still value in-person engagement but want to offer the flexibility provided by remote working options.

Of course, from a shorter term practical standpoint, hybrid working also reduces the risk of COVID-19 exposure, both through less time in sustained contact with others and also allowing for more spacing between those employees that are in the office on a given day.

The hybrid option can also boost employee morale and engagement by providing them the opportunity to customize their schedule in a way that can create optimal work-life balance so they can bring their best to the office while being more productive when they are working remotely.

Finally, the hybrid model can be a win-win for both employee and employer. Here are three of the most obvious benefits:

  • Reduced risk of employees spreading and/or catching COVID-19 or other transmitted illnesses.
  • Increased employee morale by giving employees the benefit of choosing to work from home on certain days. This shows that the employer cares about its employees and understands the value of a healthy work-life balance.
  • Both employees and employers cut back on expenses. Employees don’t have to buy office clothes,  pay as much for commuting costs, or spend money ordering lunch. On the other hand, employers cut back on office space, travel expenses, catered lunch meetings, and office supplies.

Full-time remote work

While there’ increasing hope that the end of the pandemic—or at least a dramatic reduction of its impact—is on the horizon, what won’t go away is the movement toward full-time remote work for some employees.

Many employers have realized that functions that they assumed had to occur at a certain place at a certain time can be handled adeptly by fully remote workers. And, as mentioned above there is a financial incentive attached to full-time remote working. According to a recent McKinsey report, a survey of 278 executives found that they planned to reduce office space by 30% in a post-pandemic environment on average.

Yet employers that aim to remain competitive and keep employees engaged need to focus on more than potential cost savings. Those that implement full-time remote options need to have a clear strategy to assure ongoing communications and engagement practices. Such measures will help remote employees succeed and also ensure they have access to similar benefits and opportunities as colleagues who may be working on-site or under a hybrid arrangement.

Some of the increase in full-time remote working opportunities will be consumer driven. Since the start of the pandemic, virtual transactions have taken off, and this will continue to be the case. People who have never used digital e-commerce channels before say that “they will continue  using them when things turn back to normal.” Other digital transactions such as telemedicine, online banking, and streaming have also taken off. This shift in digital transactions has opened more job opportunities, many of which can be handled from anywhere at any time.

Why remote work is the future

With growing hope that the pandemic’s influence on the economy and other aspects of our lives is waning, employers and employees are now entering a new phase in which remote and flexible working arrangements are sure to play a leading role.

McKinsey’s The future of work after COVID-19, found that there was 4 to 5 times more remote work conducted over the last year than prior to the pandemic, and they expect remote working will continue to expand and evolve moving forward.

McKinsey also found that “some work that technically can be done remotely is best done in person,” including negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding new employees.

The bottom line— remote work is surely here to stay, however how that looks will likely vary from company to company as organizations figure out what works best for them and their employees.

What’sis that employers that keep on top of the trends and in close touch with their employees’ needs and expectations, will be able to survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Make a seamless and successful transition out of the COVID-19 crisis with SurveyMonkey’s Return to Work Solutions and Employee Satisfaction Surveys.

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