2020 was the year that employers finally told their people, some for the first time: yes, you can work from home today. Some had no choice, due to executive orders closing non-essential businesses; others opted to make the move to virtual of their own volition, spurred by fears that their employees would contract COVID-19 at work. The percentage of full-time employees working from home because of COVID-19 closures increased from 33% in early March to 61% by April (Gallup). The shift was quick, but most companies expected to re-open their doors and return to normal in a matter of weeks. As remote work and the pandemic have continued, companies are now evaluating the risks and logistics of returning, while their employees find new norms in their prolonged virtual world.
Employers should be asking themselves: what is the purpose of having a physical workspace at all? And can employers make a decision on the future of their office space that’s based on data? ReedGroup and Slalom teamed up to offer our combined perspective on how to answer that question.
For many organizations, the shift to virtual work has been a revelation or even a revolution. A survey by USA Today, conducted in partnership with LinkedIn and YouGov, found that 54% of respondents said working from home has had a positive impact on their productivity, due to time saved by not having a commute (71%), fewer co-worker distractions (61%) and fewer meetings (39%.) Ic4p reported in a recent survey that 72% of respondents were working full time remotely for the first time, and for over 8%, it was the first time they’d ever worked from home at all.
The broader personal and team morale journey has followed a less linear path. Our internal research confirmed that our employees have grappled with both swings and normalizations in work habits, work-life balance, and the challenges of isolation. For many, this was their first experience of full time remote work environments. At Slalom Denver, we found through pulse surveys that morale initially dipped (Morale index of 3.73 in the first week of remote work decreased to 3.4), then climbed steadily through mid-May back above initial March levels (3.79 vs 3.73) as employees adapted to the remote work revolution. The accompanying commentary from each respondent varied widely, with some respondents focusing on tactical benefits of commute and productivity, while others expressed a nostalgia and anxiety for prior ways of working and engagement. By June, a Restoring our Workplace survey found 88% of respondents wanted to work from home at least 3 days per week on a more permanent basis, with 21% wanting to work from home every day.
The case for having an office
The primary organizational reasons behind requiring that people to still show up in a physical office, who could logistically work from home, include gaining a sense of control; securing information; management oversight of workers; and a belief that sharing space at work yields teaming benefits that may be difficult to quantify, but are still real. If your organization hasn’t done a productivity and risk assessment, this data can help inform decisions about office versus remote work.
1. Protecting your intellectual property
Information security is a practical consideration that may dictate on-premise work. Many organizations have substantial amounts of confidential information that are best controlled onsite (for example, some branches of the government may require that some or all work be done in a secure environment.) Buildings give employers the ability to constantly monitor the location of people and materials, through video surveillance and other methods. Depending on your business profile, information security can be a major risk, or relatively inconsequential. This kind of risk makes onsite work requirements easy to explain.
In some organizations, managers find it comforting to oversee the productivity of employees, particularly in workplace cultures that may not have previously tolerated remote work, or perceived it as productive. In these organizations, employees may not be trusted in their ability to work well outside of the physical office workplace. In this scenario, establishing productivity measures may help validate or refute concerns, and may create a foundation for enabling employees to work remotely if results ‘prove’ viability and can be measured.
3. The People Factor, part 1: Community is Good For Us
Working from an office offers some health benefits. ReedGroup was founded as a research organization by a physician, Dr. Presley Reed, who developed return-to-work guidelines based on the philosophy that having a purpose, and work, supported healing. Collaborative environments provide people with instant community, relief from isolation, and automatic inclusion in a steady stream of potlucks, baby showers and after-work outings. Respondents to the 2020 State of Remote Work survey identified “loneliness” as one of the two top struggles with working remotely; the other was collaboration and communication.
Slalom’s sentiments have echoed these themes. When asked in our Restoring our Workplaces survey to personally stack rank different reasons why they would want to return to the office, collaborating with team members was the most frequently selected top choice (40% respondents), while missing colleagues was the next most selected primary driver (15% respondents).
4. The People Factor, part 2: Virtual is Not the Same
While there are numerous digital collaboration tools, meeting via video may tax us in ways not widely discussed by our pre-pandemic HR departments; “zoom fatigue” is real. It can also be challenging to empathetically deliver tough messages, feedback or other sensitive matters virtually. It’s also demonstrably more difficult to collaborate on creative projects, and other work, with a physical product. But will collaboration culture as we remember it from before the pandemic even exist? There won’t be anyone in the next cube, in most offices, due to new social distancing and spacing requirements. The water-cooler conversations, office lunches and in-person whiteboard sessions are not going to look the same, if they happen at all.
If collaboration is key to your reasoning for a physical workplace, think through modern solutions to support this objective, even with a physical return to work. Re-imagine your workspace beyond the logistics of physical separation. Shifts to schedules and meeting behaviors, teaming/shift structures, a blend of physical and virtual collaboration spaces and even changes to goals and incentives may help accelerate teamwork to new heights beyond the organic interactions relied upon pre-pandemic.
Planning for the future
Regardless of how the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ play out for your organization, there is one critical approach that should be universally applied to increase acceptance among your employees, particularly if your organization is planning segmented approaches to returning to a workplace. It is important to have and communicate a clear standard on who can and cannot work from home that is based on an objective assessment of your business needs. Focus on roles, not individuals. Without a clear rationale, you can expect objections from employees who may correctly assert that they were getting more done working from home. Be consistent in your application of standards. Consistency will also help you stay compliant. Employers must be clear on when they do and do not have to provide accommodations to employee requests based on ADA and EEOC regulations. You can find analysis of new guidance from the EEOC and the CDC in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series on ReedGroup’s blog.
Our point of view: Assess what the value proposition is for your organization and industry to have a physical workspace, then evaluate a return to that workplace – in terms of both If and When – based on that specific value proposition, as weighed against the logistics and costs of returning. Your timeline and answer may be different to other similarly sized companies, purely based on your goals and the nature of your workplace.
Focusing on the ‘why’, as well as the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of a return, may help direct organizational efforts in restoring physical workplaces so that they are more valuable and flexible than ever. It is an opportunity to find a new normal, and a new brand identity as an employer. Employers may find a middle ground that blends remote work with some in-office presence provides them, and their teams, with flexibility that allows “collaboration days” in far less crowded spaces. Indeed, 54% of companies say they foresee expanding or increasing flexible work arrangements in the future. Blended on-site and remote work requires less real estate than an office expansion that allows for social distancing, and it may keep some of the productivity and work satisfaction that were gained during the pandemic, while re-establishing connection and community. Ultimately, the right solution is not just safely following guidelines, but also prioritizing what allows your business, and your employees, to thrive.
Kevin Curry is the Chief Revenue Officer for ReedGroup. ReedGroup, a subsidiary of Guardian Life, provides outsourced absence management services and software for more than 40% of the Fortune 500. Kevin is a 25-year veteran of the absence management industry. He is current the board chair of the Disability Managing Employers Coalition (DMEC) and is a past board member of the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI.)
Isla Bragg is a Managing Director of Business Advisory Services at Slalom. Slalom is a modern consulting company focused on strategy, business transformation and technology. Isla has 15 years’ experience helping organizations create amazing places to work, and to drive high business performance through their employees.
 i4cp, How the Coronavirus Has Affected Collaboration Overload, April 2020
 i4cp, COVID-19 Response: Collaboration Overload, April 2020
 i4cp, COVID-19 Response: Collaboration Overload, April 2020
 i4cp: Many Companies Foresee Expanding Flexible Work Arrangements in the Post-Coronavirus Pandemic Future, April 2020
Information provided on this blog is intended for general educational use. It is not intended to provide legal advice. ReedGroup does not provide legal services. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this or any other topic.