Catch your breath. Rest up while you can. We’re on the precipice of what looks to be one of the most important chapters for work in our lifetimes.
The US peak of new Omicron cases is now likely behind us. We should emerge with some protection from the virus as a result of vaccination or infection across the US population that—barring a new aggressive variant—should eventually allow us to resume normal activities and relegate Covid to the same level of concern in our lives as the seasonal flu.
This all means that we can expect this spring to shift back to offices on a broad scale, to resume business travel and attending in-person conferences, to reacquaint with colleagues or meet them for the first time, to adjust our family rhythms and responsibilities to the shift in demands from work.
Opportunities to reshape culture and norms are rare, and the question hanging over everything is: “What does the new normal look like?” This is the biggest test for managers and organizational leaders since the start of the pandemic.
With a Great Return looming, here’s a checklist for making sure your organization is prepared, whether you’re a leader responsible or an employee looking to assess or support the progress:
☐ Has your organization clearly communicated a plan and timetable for the return to the office, or is it prepared to?
- Roughly 30% of workers don’t trust their employer to make the right decisions about the return, according to a recent Morning Consult survey, and about half don’t think their organizations are being transparent about their post-pandemic remote work policy, according to Slack’s Future Forum.
- Employees need advance notice to plan for their families, pets, and other activities that matter to them. By being clear and direct, employers recognize that employees have more in their lives than work.
☐ Are the expectations of workers and managers around flexibility aligned?
- Workers expect their employers to allow them to work remotely roughly one day per week on average, according to WFH Research, while their preference is about two days on average. Some 71% of workers dissatisfied with the flexibility they’re offered say they are likely to look for a new job, according to Future Forum. And WFH Research found that BIPOC workers are more likely than white employees to quit or look for a new job if required to return to the office five days a week.
- We’re hearing from organizations where top executives have a strong preference for bringing everyone back in the office more or less full-time. It’s almost certain that approach will make it harder to recruit and retain staff over time.
- At the very least, companies should consider allowing more flexibility on work hours and location at the team level, or treat flexibility as an experiment to be evaluated after a few months. It’s hard for most organizations to argue that their employees can’t be just as productive on days outside the office after two years remote where they have done so.
- WFH Research also found that almost half of workers will go to the office on their remote days if they know their managers will be there. If managers are in the office all or most of the time, there’s a strong risk that proximity bias negatively impacts employees who aren’t and that ultimately the hybrid approach is a shambles.
☐ Does your organization have real progress to show on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—especially in light of promises during the summer of 2020 to improve?
- Just 70% of employees say their organizations have made sufficient progress toward greater DEI, according to a recent Qualtrics survey. Employees of color and transgender workers have actually reported increased harassment even while work has been remote.
- There have been significant increases in Black and Latinx knowledge workers agreeing with the statement “I am treated fairly at work” in surveys over the past year—which Future Forum has attributed to less micro-aggression and code-switching when workers are remote. This suggests that providing flexibility and remote work opportunities is an important ingredient of DEI efforts. It also is a strong reminder that there’s a lot of work needed to make offices more inclusive environments. (There are some good suggestions for how to do so here.)
☐ Are your offices reconfigured to be a tool for doing work and connecting colleagues rather than just a place where work is done?
- Offices should be more conducive to group meetings and less formal interactions between colleagues. For some companies, this means replacing seas of cubicles with a smaller quantity of “hot desks” and more meeting and cafe space where employees can socialize, build relationships, and share information. (Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes a useful distinction between “hard” and “soft” work, with the latter—like getting coffee with a co-worker—being what offices are uniquely best for.)
- Offices also need to structurally acknowledge hybrid and remote workers, with sufficient videoconferencing infrastructure to allow them to fully participate in any meetings.
☐ Have your facilities’ public-health practices been upgraded?
- Public-health experts say improved indoor airflow and filtration are underrated tools for combating this pandemic and any future ones, in addition to improving workplace health more broadly. Here’s a useful guide to assessing where your workplace stands in areas like MERV ratings and outdoor air exchange.
- Also, is your organization requiring vaccination or regular testing? Does it have clear rules around when masks are required? Ultimately, companies need to have a system for keeping track of shifting public-health recommendations and reacting accordingly so employees can feel confident about their policies.
☐ Does your organization provide generous support for caregivers?
- Just 23% of workers are currently eligible for paid leave covering serious illness in themselves or a family member or the arrival of a new child. The childcare crisis is ongoing, impacting women most of all.
- Caregivers need access to paid family leave, child-care benefits, coaching, and flexibility—as well as cultural change in organizations to value caregiving and discard outmoded approaches centered on long hours and presenteeism. You can find more specifics in our free playbook here.
☐ Are managers prepared to lead their teams in these new ways of working and to support them through burnout and other challenges?
- When we last year surveyed people responsible for their organizations’ return to offices, their biggest concern was whether there would be adequate training and support for front-line managers. Managing a team that is working at different times and in different locations requires using new tactics—such as setting “coordination hours” where everyone overlaps—and reinforcing old ones such as providing clear goal-setting and feedback.
- Managers also need to be equipped to have conversations about mental health, inclusion, and caregiving responsibilities that they might not have traditionally broached. Our return to workplace toolkit (membership required) provides specifics, including scripts for what managers might say.
☐ Is your organization providing increased support for mental health and wellness?
- Some 43% of workers surveyed by Edelman globally last year said their employer wasn’t taking the issue of employee burnout seriously and actively addressing it. A majority of workers say they’ve experienced some symptoms of burnout or anxiety in connection with their work.
- Physically and mentally healthy employees are a key requirement for sustained high performance. Organizations should provide access to mental health services and encouragement to take time away from work. Leaders can model taking breaks and prioritizing health and self-care.
☐ Has your organization’s leadership identified the societal issues on which it is prepared to take a public stand?
- Some 60% of people expect top executives to speak publicly on controversial social and political issues that they care about, according to Edelman Trust Barometer polling. Jobs/economy, tech and automation, wage inequality, and climate change are the top issues where people are looking for executives to shape public policy debates.
- Researchers say that one of the most important things leaders can do to retain employees is to clearly and repeatedly talk about what the purpose of the work is. Collecting and telling stories about people impacted positively by the organization—customers, partners, the families of staff—is a good approach.
This all is not to say that the past two years haven’t been their own challenging chapter for work, and many organizations have adapted impressively. Also, to be sure, the impact of the virus still is being painfully felt in homes and hospitals around the US, and a new variant could well show up that sends people scrambling back to their couches and kitchen tables. In addition, many of the core challenges—including those for caregivers who lack structural support—require broader societal and government efforts to address them.
But, with any luck, we’re on the cusp of a new phase where we have a unique opportunity to further redefine the future of work in ways that will last for years to come.