So You're Back, But Are You Really Back?

Experts called it “the biggest work-from-home experiment in history.” At one point, about a third of the world’s population — and nearly as big a chunk of the workforce — was under strict stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19. They were, in a way, all participants in one massive study about remote work.

The data has been rolling in since then. One of the most interesting findings is that 72 percent of knowledge workers — programmers, engineers, designers, and others whose job is to think for a living — would prefer a more flexible work environment moving forward. Only 12 percent want to be in the office full-time.

At this point, with almost half of the country at least partially vaccinated, business leaders seem to think that the experiment is officially over. Banking giant Goldman Sachs is bringing 20,000 employees back into its gleaming towers in New York, San Francisco, and Dallas this month. JPMorgan Chase will follow suit in July. They acknowledge some pushback — JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon was perhaps a little too honest when he said: “People don’t like commuting, but so what?”  — but say that preserving the corporate culture is most important.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find tech companies like Twitter, Spotify, and Square who say employees can keep working from home forever. Amazon and Microsoft won’t be bringing employees back until October, and Facebook now says its staffers won’t return until after the first of the year. (“I think we have a responsibility not only to adhere to the public health guidelines, but to be slower than others in bringing people back simply because we can,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith.) Google actually walked back its previously announced policy, giving employees more leeway to work from home.

And most of us are somewhere in the middle, wondering whether we should bring employees back into the office, what the best timing would be, and what it would even look like. We’re in a sort of corporate limbo.

If you are racing to get your people back in the office, here are a couple of things to consider:

Finding the best applicants. The most qualified person for the job doesn’t necessarily live within a couple of subway stops of your office. Your competition is casting a wider net, and so should you. At the one-year mark of the pandemic, Averity is busier than we’ve ever been. We are hiring new recruiters to meet this increased demand, and we have fully embraced the remote culture now employing top tier people from all over the country that we never would have been able to work with prior. No disrespect to the tech person in New York City, but it’s great to talk to candidates with different skills, backgrounds, and personalities.

Sparking more creativity. There’s a strong belief that remote work zaps our creativity because we can’t bounce ideas off each other at in-person brainstorming sessions. Our teams are definitely feeling the strain. A recent study found that one in four employees report that working from home has made them feel less creative. Trouble is, there’s not a lot of data to back this up. But there is research showing that remote teams have some advantages. Teams that are more diverse, including from a wider geographic region, are more innovative.

Ramping up productivity. If you think that your team’s productivity suffered during the pandemic, think again. After an initial dip right after the start of the pandemic, productivity skyrocketed. There’s a very interesting study that showed when employees opted into a work-from-home program, their productivity increased by 13 percent. When they later were given the choice to continue to work from home or go back to the office, those who stayed at home showed an additional 22 percent in productivity.

Retaining more women. It’s not a secret that Covid-19 has hit women harder. Data shows that 400,000 more women than men have left their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, mostly because of the need for things like childcare. This means a decade of gains made by women in the workforce was completely erased by the second month of the pandemic. Maintaining a flexible work-from-home policy is one of the easiest ways to keep women of all levels from leaving your companies.

There are plenty of good reasons to invite your team back to the office. Onboarding has been hit and miss during the pandemic. Employees reported that collaboration has suffered, as has a sense of camaraderie. But remember that all of us transitioning to work from home was uncharted territory a year ago, but so is getting back to normal today. It’s going to take a lot of trial and error before we get it right.

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