U.S. employers are at an inflection point. As the pandemic threat is waning, we are entering an economic recovery period that promises supercharged growth. But employers are also facing critical decisions around how and when to return office-based employees to the workplace.
In fact, 70% of employers who have made plans say they’ll adopt a hybrid model, but significant decisions remain to operationalize approaches. These decisions will have an outsized impact on the employee experience, so employers will need to plan their next steps with caution.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, most employers have maintained a focus on employee experience and have successfully balanced economics and empathy in their crisis response. We saw companies promising no layoffs, implementing pay protections, expanding sick leave, continually taking measures to protect the health and safety of their workforce, and having an open and candid dialogue with employees regarding the state of the business.
Employees have recognized these efforts, which appear to be paying off. Our recent analysis showed a positive spike in employee engagement levels during COVID. Employee commitment, which has hovered between 66% and 69% over the last five years, has also spiked to 76%.
Sustaining high levels of commitment and engagement will undoubtedly give employers an advantage in their economic recovery. This is especially critical as employers face many risks in what looks to become one of the most challenging labor markets in recent history. Employers are already having a hard time filling roles — job openings just reached a series high of 9.3M — and as many as 1 in 4 employees are planning to look for new opportunities as the pandemic threat subsides. Employer plans for returning to the workplace will heavily influence these numbers — a recent study by Mercer and AECOM found that 56% of employees would consider switching employers if flexibility is not maintained post-pandemic.
So, what can employers do as they plan their return to the workplace to sustain and maintain the employee experience?
Here are five ideas:
1. Empower teams – with guardrails
Most businesses say they’ve fared well through remote working. Ninety percent of employers say productivity is the same or better than before the pandemic, and nearly 1 in 4 say their productivity has actually increased. For many remote employees, mandates to return to the office feel like a betrayal of the trust they feel they’ve earned. Employers can and should empower teams to continue to work flexibly but establish organizational guardrails to maximize business outcomes and ensure a consistent employee experience. Flexibility models aligned to the nature of work can help organizations create such boundaries and equip managers with the tools and capability to build hybrid work arrangements for their teams.
2. Keep a pulse on the market
Employee sensing studies indicate that flexibility will likely have a high impact on an organization’s ability to retain talent. Many employees are anxiously awaiting plans from employers before they make a decision. The actions of other employers will also impact retention, as employees will likely “shop” for flexible working arrangements that best meet their needs, if they aren’t satisfied with their employer’s plans. Employees wishing to continue full-time remote working may find it more difficult than expected to find that arrangement. In estimates collected in May of 2020 across 400 organizations, employers, expected only 14% of the workforce to continue to work remotely on a full-time basis. Employers must determine if their plans are competitive – or potentially even differentiating — for their employer brand.
3. Don’t force it
We’ve seen some employers rush to get their employees back to the office. In many cases, employees have returned to their daily commutes only to sit in virtual meetings. The real benefits of the office – collaboration, co-creation, and connection – are not being realized in this environment. This can result in employees feeling less productive (given time lost to the commute), inconvenienced, and even resentful about their experience. Employers should focus on returning employees in a way where co-working benefits can be maximized immediately – making workers feel energized, empowered, and engaged to be back together with their colleagues. This may entail phased transitions, where employees may only initially come in one or two days a week, planned team meetings or on-site social events and celebrations to make those early office days more purposeful.
4. Stay agile
Employers will need to remain agile. We are not out of the pandemic yet, and there are many unknowns on the state of the virus and the continued emergence of variants. Few employers had embraced hybrid working at scale before the pandemic, and there will undoubtedly be lessons learned — just as there were when we were forced into remote working. Employers should adopt a “test and learn” mentality and plan for changes. This also requires setting that expectation with employees that plans are only a starting point, and success will be monitored and evaluated and adjustments made accordingly. Companies that can retain that agile mindset will adapt most successfully to the realities of work post-pandemic.
5. Don’t limit flexibility to remote work
While the state of the pandemic has many employers focused on remote working as they seek to return employees to offices, it’s important to recognize this is only one dimension of flexibility. Flexibility is just as highly valued for employees who cannot work remotely. In a preference study with a large front-line workforce conducted just before the pandemic, Mercer found employees rated flexibility second to only pay as part of the employee value proposition – ahead of benefits, career advancement, and perks. Given the massive challenges employers are facing in attracting and retaining workers, options such as flexible schedules or compressed workweeks can be a huge differentiator. Consider a more inclusive value proposition on flexibility so that all roles can flex, albeit in different ways – and help avoid feelings of resentment between front-line workers and office-based staff.
Employers have made considerable gains in building a better employee experience over the last year, despite the challenges of the pandemic. Employers will need to continue to be agile and leverage every ounce of goodwill they’ve developed to power through the economic boom and massive talent shortages that lie ahead. Employers should pause their plans, listen to their employees, and ensure those plans will not undo the progress made over the last year.