New research shows how resilient organizations thrived through the pandemic. Here’s how to use those lessons to craft a better approach to how work gets done across time (real and asynchronous) and space (digital and physical).
In May 2020, we published an article arguing that the return to the workplace was a new muscle that organizations needed to develop, not a plan with a predictable timeline. The need for organizations to build this muscle is especially urgent today, as vaccination levels around the world rise, infection and hospitalization levels in many countries decrease, and companies begin their return from remote.
Many companies are already in various stages of a physical return to the workplace. In the United States, for example, employees are starting to return to office locations at a greater pace. Consumer and retail footfall to headquarters has increased by 80 percent, travel and logistics are up 50 percent, and pharmaceutical and healthcare are up 10 percent.
A few short months ago, it wasn’t clear that business leaders would so fully embrace a return to the office. But it’s now evident that they will. Some 52 percent of C-suite executives we surveyed espouse an almost full return to the office, with workers on-site four days per week or more. Nine out of ten think that employees will be in the office at least three days per week.
Company leaders have good reasons for wanting workers back in the office. As the pandemic dragged on, people’s sense of belonging and social connections suffered, especially among newer employees. Interactions across silos became increasingly difficult via remote. Many women left the workforce, widening the gender gap. Mental-health issues, grief, anxiety, and burnout are on the rise, reflecting a decline in the informal and intimate human connections that often occur at the workplace.
Reversing these trends is critical. But leaders are coming to realize that a physical return to the office is no panacea.
In spite of the difficulties employees encountered during remote work, they enjoyed the flexibility and convenience and are reluctant to go back to prepandemic working norms. More than 40 percent fear they will disengage from work if faced with a full return to the office, and a healthy portion is prepared to leave. An office-heavy return may also set back corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion goals that leaders have pushed for years. More women could leave the workplace if they lose flexibility, while diverse employees and parents with young children are more worried than others that a full return will have a negative impact on their mental health.
Leaders themselves are also starting to worry about a potential dip in performance. Won’t collaboration be more difficult, not less, when some people are on phones, others are on videoconference, and others are in the office? Will getting it right mean investing in all kinds of new and expensive technologies? Couldn’t time spent commuting every day be used more productively?
The more they explore the details of this return from remote, the more they acknowledge its complexity. This article aims to clarify the process. First, we’ll consider research conducted with more than 500 senior executives across eight industries that offers valuable lessons pointing to key actions leaders must take during the return from remote. Then we’ll look at the five muscles companies must build if they are going to seize this moment to create a robust and productive operating model for the future.