At the start of the pandemic, organizations navigated a massive transition to remote work. The initial reaction from many companies: Virtual work is great. Let’s save on real estate and travel costs. We may never go back.

One year later, the pendulum is now swinging back towards the middle. Most companies are recognizing the value of the office for reasons relating to collaboration or culture. Most are now working towards a hybrid model or flexible working arrangement (part-time in office, part-time work from home).

Key takeaways from PwC’s most recent US Remote Work Survey:

  • Remote work has been an overwhelming success. 83% of employers now say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, compared to 73% back in June 2020.
  • The office is here to stay, but its role must be defined. Less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic. The rest are grappling with how widely to extend remote work options. 83% of executives think that employees need to be in the office at least two days a week to maintain a strong culture. 87% of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships.
  • Employees want to return to the office more slowly than employers expect. By July 2021, 75% of executives anticipate that at least half of office employees will be working in the office. In comparison, 61% of employees expect to spend half their time in the office by July.
  • The least experienced workers need the office the most. Employees with the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) are more likely to want to be in the office more often. 30% of them prefer being remote no more than one day a week. The least experienced workers also reported feeling less productive while working remotely.

Diligent hosted a recent roundtable with 20 board members focused on the topic: “Return to Work and Shaping the Workplace of the Future.” Emerging from this discussion, it was clear to me that we’ve reached an inflection point in our pandemic recovery. Before organizations can welcome employees back to the office, they must design what the Future of Work (FoW) will look like — and every decision has implications for culture, talent, security, and so on. Below are five key considerations that emerged from the recent roundtable.

 

Key Considerations for Returning to Work

 

1. Focus on the Long-Term

The goal should not simply be to get back to the office quickly. Companies that take this approach are out of touch — not listening to their workforce or the world around them. Rather, company leadership should be responding to the needs of their employees and to the changing landscape — and designing a better model aligned to the company’s long-term strategy.

We’re starting to see a cultural divide of companies who truly care about their employees and those that don’t. It’s not just about offering employees an app. It will become clear which companies are actually listening and researching what a better work environment looks like.

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

 

2. Define the Role of the Office

Any decisions about the office should be made with intention. What’s the role of the office moving forward: collaboration, ideation, socialization? Define what is home work vs. office work. This is an opportunity to rethink employee tools and resources.

For our company, it’s shaping up that the physical office is where you’ll collaborate, while the home office is for your own productivity time.

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

This process can get granular: Where are the specific connection and collaboration points? For example, do HR and finance need to overlap one day a week?

 

3. Be Ready to Iterate

You won’t design a perfect solution the first time around. Ensure your plan includes regular mechanisms for feedback and measurement (e.g., monthly/quarterly employee surveys, health metrics, productivity metrics).

You can’t wait for perfect. The business has to keep moving forward. Launch, measure, iterate and communicate. Embrace this new agile operating model.

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

We’re piloting new working models with small groups and collecting feedback. This is how we’re testing and refining before we roll out.

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

 

4. Embrace these Iterations as Part of Your Employee Communication Strategy

Be transparent. Bring your employees along on your reopening journey. We’re listening to you. We’re going to be revisiting our plan constantly and making adjustments. We’re going to be agile in the months ahead. This is how we operate now.

At first, we released some light guidelines about relocation, returning to the office, use of stipends, etc… We thought we were giving our employees a lot of flexibility. We later found out that it put a lot of stress and anxiety on people lower down in the organization who were looking for clearer answers so they could make important decisions impacting their lease or their families. Now we focus more on guardrails instead of guidelines. We try not to put the weight on the employee where possible.

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

 

5. Consider DE&I Implications — and be Intentional

Consider the DE&I implications of your office decisions. With every requirement you put in place — or even with the lack of requirements — are you creating a two-tier employee experience? One positive aspect of this pandemic is we see far more intentionality around DE&I issues than we were before.

Certain groups of people within the organization may have less flexibility and less means to work from home. Is this going to create unintended consequences that we don’t want? It’s important to bring this lens as a board member.

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

We’re thinking broader than office vs. home. How are we giving employees access to WeWork or other hoteling solutions?

— Board member during Diligent’s roundtable discussion, “Shaping the Workplace of the Future”

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What’s the board’s role in all this? As organizations execute “Return to Work” plans, it’s important for board members to bring the long-term perspective. In our roundtable discussion, we agreed that boards must ensure management is being intentional in all the ways discussed above. For every reopening decision, boards must anticipate the implications for company culture, talent and DE&I. They’re responsible for looking across the landscape, learning from what other companies are doing, and bringing those insights back to their board.

Ready or not, the Future of Work has arrived. Those organizations ready to embrace it — albeit with intention and care — will find great opportunity in what lies ahead. The Diligent team looks forward to covering this topic as it evolves.

Define what the Future of Work (FoW) will look like in your organization with Diligent’s FoW Blueprint, which outlines four crucial strategies for leaders to take as they transition back to the office.