As corporate and urban centers around the world continue to resume a more familiar pace, leaders seek the right balance between in-person and remote work, as well as between mandates and persuasion. A recent WTW survey reports that leaders expect more than half of their employees (55%) to work either fully remotely or hybrid in three years, compared with 15% before the pandemic.
Effective leaders take six actions as employees return to offices:
WTW research indicates that while people discovered the benefits of remote work during the pandemic, they also learned its downsides, including isolation, feeling disconnected, blurred boundaries, working more hours and the potential negative impact on career development. For example, 57% of Gen Z workers reported feeling more disconnected from their teams while working remotely than while working in-person.
Effective leaders have learned that giving people a reason to come in (rather than forcing them) creates a more productive and collaborative environment. Examples of compelling reasons include connecting with colleagues, energetic and focused collaboration (as opposed to perfunctory meetings), work that connects with purpose and the opportunity to learn, grow and contribute. Leaders who focus the experience on the employees rather than themselves increase attendance, participation, engagement and productivity.
The research also shows that flexibility, cost savings and better time management are top reasons employees prefer remote work. As such, effective leaders assess different work arrangements, technologies and processes, and create flexibility wherever possible. For example, they might require employees to be onsite three days per week but let them choose which days. Or they might pick two specific days teams work in-person each week and provide employees flexibility the other days.
Effective leaders offer flexible work schedules where possible, allowing employees to commute during non-peak times to reduce time and expense or to allow for caregiving and other responsibilities. Data from security and key card company Kastle show large differences in U.S. building occupancy between peak and non-peak days each week, and peak days vary by week, sometimes Tuesday and sometimes Wednesday. Office occupancy also varies considerably by geographic region. For example, data from JLL show much higher occupancy rates in Europe than the U.S., and Colliers’ data show occupancy highest in Asia (80%), followed by Europe (65%) and the U.S. (50%). These differences are attributed to factors relating to culture, infrastructure, transportation and commuting patterns.
WTW research shows that even during the height of the pandemic, approximately 35% of workers around the world remained onsite. These frequently were frontline employees who worked in hospitals, factories, distribution centers, grocery stores, pharmacies, laboratories, utilities and other institutions that literally kept society moving. These workers bristle at the term “back to work” as they never left work. Many are vocal about this point in union negotiations and retention discussions.
Effective leaders spend time in plants, worksites, call centers, distribution facilities, hotels, stores and hospitals to connect with frontline workers, better understand how work gets done and convey appreciation for the impact of that work. They also seek opportunities to provide flexibility for these employees, whether through flexible shift schedules, changes to the work environment or enhanced wellbeing programs.
According to recent WTW research, companies that are prepared for changing working conditions are more likely to conduct employee listening activities (e.g., surveys, focus groups and direct interaction) to identify changes in employee preferences or measure the impact of changing work conditions. Leaders in these organizations reimagine the employee experience to promote a new work culture. Effective leaders connect with employees live and virtually, keeping pace with changing views and preferences.
The same research shows that 85% of organizations either have or are planning to redesign total rewards programs (pay, benefits, wellbeing, careers), including career development (87%), compensation (83%), benefits and wellbeing (83%), and healthcare benefits and delivery to support the changing mix of onsite, hybrid and remote workers (71%). Simultaneously, 62% have or are planning to eliminate pay and benefit programs that are less relevant in today’s world.
First-line managers are key to engaging employees, and the new environment is challenging for them, as well. They need help developing the skills and strategies to create meaningful career opportunities and compelling work environments. These managers need resources to support refreshed company value propositions regardless of where (and when) employees are working.
Effective leaders understand that few companies can do it all, and they manage inevitable trade-offs. For example, if an organization offers less flexible work arrangements, it may create offsets such as more attractive work environments, benefits and pay.
Effective leaders stay focused on the needs of employees and their organizations, striking a balance to support employee wellbeing and business priorities.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes on September 29, 2023.