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Remote, Hybrid, or Onsite: Why Flexibility is the Future of Work

For the last year and a half, companies have been slowly returning to work and figuring out what they expect and need from their employees.

What they’ve discovered is that no two workplace models are the same, and in order to fully support employees and still see powerful business returns, flexibility and adaptability truly are the names of the game.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors currently shaping a majority of work environments and assess how companies can give shape to optimal workplace environments that benefit all parties.

Tension Between Employers and Employees Is at an All-Time High

It’s no secret that the divide between employers and employees has only worsened since work-from-home mandates have been lifted.

From unmanageable workloads to communications and meetings held behind a screen, there are a number of factors contributing to already-high levels of stress and anxiety within workplaces. From an external lens, interest rates are rising globally, causing employees to feel nervous about job security and employers to become hyper-focused on profitability. At the same time, government subsidies are no longer available for many companies, and many people continue to find themselves in debilitating debt.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the total amount of household debt in the U.S. equates to roughly $16.5 trillion, and the average household debt falls just under $100,000. A recent survey from Credit Karma found that Gen X carries the most average debt, but millennials are quickly catching up.

To find out how these external stressors are impacting workers, we spoke with workplace expert Jon Arnold of J. Arnold & Associates, who summarized the current situation as a “gooey mess”:

“Nobody's making the rules. All of this is dictated by the state of the economy. We've had a strong economy in terms of full employment, but now it’s starting to catch up, which means interest rates are going up and people are getting nervous. There's a lot of concern about companies that are not profitable.”

Arnold further highlights that tech sectors are starting to see a spike in layoffs, but in other sectors, employees are still very much calling the shots. Either way, both employers and employees are eager to find their footing as the economy ebbs.

To ensure a certain degree of stability, many managers are preferring their employees to be in the office, despite employees finally readjusting to remote work. In a recent CNBC article, Sharon Block, professor and Executive Director of the Labor and Work-Life Program at Harvard Law School, describes this tension in detail:

“I’m not sure that work is any more dysfunctional now than it’s been in the past. What has shifted, though, is that the tight labor market of the last year gives workers the upper hand to vocalize, even push back on, the unaccommodating ways work gets done. On an existential level, people are re-thinking how they fill their time (including spending less of it at work). The experiences of the pandemic have brought these conversations of dysfunction to the fore.”

Many businesses work organically in remote or hybrid environments and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future. However, uncertainty has caused many employers to reevaluate where they want their employees to work. Not to mention, some industries will always require employees to work onsite, such as health care delivery organizations like hospitals and clinics.

How can employers and employees reach a compromise when the world and workplace conditions are constantly in flux? Arnold says the key is flexibility.


Nevermind Hybrid, Remote, or Onsite—Think Flexibility

While companies are grappling with the question of hybrid versus remote versus onsite, what they should be looking at is how to be more flexible. Any model they choose will require flexibility in order to be successful, and an essential part of that will require leaders to shift how they think about their teams.

The pandemic taught us that remote work as well as hybrid environments are effective when there are no other options. However, not every manager has handled that transition smoothly. Many still long to go back to the “manage by walking around” approach and prefer to have workers onsite.

The Employer-Employee Disconnect

A recent survey conducted by Microsoft found that only 12% of leaders are confident that their remote and/or hybrid employees are productive, while 87% of their employees report that they are highly productive.

A recent survey conducted by Microsoft found that only 12% of leaders are confident that their remote and/or hybrid employees are productive, while 87% of their employees report that they are highly productive. That’s quite a disconnect.

Even if managers are more aligned with their teams in assessing productivity, they may struggle to find ways to build camaraderie and belonging when their employees are in remote or hybrid environments. That’s why Arnold recommends that leaders encourage team-building and connection on a human-centric level to foster trust and companionship:

“You've got to build camaraderie and rapport. This is what drives retention and keeps morale high. People want to feel that they're part of something. This is where management has valid reasons for wanting to have people onsite.”

In addition, companies are finding that the command-and-control approach that was predominant before the pandemic doesn’t translate well to flexible working models. Not only is it not physically possible, but it doesn’t mesh well with the work styles of millennial and Gen Z employees, who are making up the majority of today’s workforces.

According to Arnold, businesses founded in the past 15 to 20 years have had the opportunity to mature in a strong digital landscape, which has made adapting to remote and hybrid working environments much easier as opposed to older companies. “It's just part of the way digital natives think, work, behave, and interact with the tools that they use,” he adds.

On the other hand, some organizations haven't adapted to technology as fast as their employees have, making the transition into remote and hybrid environments more difficult. Younger employees in the workforce are already attuned to doing everything online or on their mobile phones and even prefer text-based communications to picking up a telephone receiver.

“It really comes down to the culture of the organization and the divide between what we call “digital immigrants” versus “digital natives.” For digital immigrants in the analog world, if they can't see you, they can’t trust that you're working or not. But for digital natives, working at home and in a flexible hybrid model is very much aligned with their way of life.”

Companies need to bridge the divide and find a balance that brings managers up to speed without creating more anxiety. At the same time, however, our technologically-enabled world that allows employees to access work anytime, anywhere is a double-edged sword. While it can benefit employee wellness, there’s also a rising number of statistics that illustrate how technology can be intrusive and even harmful if abused.


How Technology Helps (and Hinders) Workplace Wellness

Decades ago, employees weren’t allowed to make personal calls or use mobile phones in the office. Today, the exact opposite is the norm.

Technology may make it easier to collaborate with teams remotely, but the constant multitasking of texting, emailing, scheduling Zoom meetings, and sharing files can be overwhelming and lead to burnout.

The good news is that technology has blurred the lines between personal and work communications, making it easier to work from anywhere.

The bad news is that…technology has blurred the lines between personal and work communications, making employees feel like they have to work from anywhere. And that’s not easy for everyone.

“If you’re lucky, you have a quiet, dedicated space in your home where you can work with no distractions. But so many employees, especially young people, can't afford to buy houses or they live with families or roommates. If employees aren’t in an ideal home environment for work, it’s not a good way to work.”

Employers need to consider how technology and access to a quiet workspace will impact employee well-being. Flexibility implies providing the best option for all employees, whenever they need it most.


Flexible Curation Is Key to Productive, Profitable Workplaces

Employers need to personalize their workplaces and curate what works for their employees and overall business goals.

So, how do you ensure all needs are being met? Here are some tips to help you leverage flexibility in designing your company’s workplace amid uncertain global and economical shifts:

1. Create a Curation Taskforce

Assemble a taskforce with representation from management and employees who are dedicated to answering this question now and well into the future.

The world will continue to change and evolve, which means your company has to follow suit. The key is to make sure your policies and best practices are not resolved from the top down.

2. Survey Employees Individually

Find out what employees like and don’t like about their current work environment, and ask them what would make their experience better.

For extra credit, ask your workers how they would solve some of the big problems you’re struggling with when it comes to workplace environments. One good question to ask is, “What does workplace flexibility mean to you?”

3. Factor in the Needs of All Workers

Today’s employee populations are increasingly multigenerational, meaning health and wellness needs will vary from person to person. It’s important to understand what those needs are for all of your employees and find equitable ways to address them.

4. Leverage Technology Wisely

There’s a big difference between offering and requiring tech solutions.

Find creative ways to consolidate the use of technology so remote employees aren’t online all day. Be intentional with suggestions to help team members consciously disconnect and spend time checking in with themselves.

It would also serve your employees to allow them to focus on mindfulness programs, mental health services, and workplace wellness challenges that offset the heavy stressors your employees may be experiencing.

5. Back Up Your Workplace Changes

If your company does choose to require employees to be fully or partly onsite, make sure to communicate and demonstrate the value to them.

Don’t demand that workers resume long commutes on a daily basis only to sit by themselves in cubicles with no person-to-person interactions. There must be value in those decisions, or you run the risk of seeing widespread attrition, reduced productivity, and starved engagement.

The keys to a flexible workplace are based in determining what will work best for your unique workforce, continuing to re-evaluate regularly and make adjustments accordingly. Our Wellness Consultants have the experience and training you need to help your team begin that process. Reach out for assistance in creating a flexible workplace of the future.

At WellRight, we’re here to help.

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