Remote vs. in-person: what’s right for your company?

With vaccines rolling out and a hopeful end to the pandemic in-sight, organisations are in the throes of figuring out next steps, and weighing the pros and cons of remote vs. in-person work.

On the one hand, the past year has shown that many employees can work just as productively at home as they can in-office (something work-life balance advocates have been saying for years now). But there’s also a case to be made for the benefits of returning to the office, at least on a gradual, phased basis.

For one thing, employees in Monster’s Global Future of Work Report say that the forced work-from-home situation wasn’t exactly great for their mental health. In fact, 46% of global respondents reported that they had job-related anxiety and/or depression in the last year.   Plus,  some aspects of work – like collaboration, innovation, and elements of company culture – may be better achieved in person.

“I predict that despite virtual and flexible work options continuing, we will also see a gradual return to an in-person work environment,” says Scott Gutz, CEO, Monster.

For companies that are trying to figure out the right balance, or when to go back (if at all), here are some of the considerations to make either approach successful in a post-COVID world.

Remote work is here to stay… for some

In June 2020, a study by Stanford University found that 42% of the U.S. labor force was working from home full time. In white-collar sectors, most organizations are still predominately remote today. In fact, gross commercial leasing square footage dropped over 50% in 2020, and the need for office space is expected to drop by another 15% this year, as per one study from Clever, an online real estate service.

Besides the lingering fear and state-mandated reductions in workplace capacity, it could also be that many companies have gotten into the work-from-home groove and have decided to stay that way for the foreseeable future. And for some employees, there’s no desire to go back.

The fact is, it’s going to be hard for employers to walk back the big policy changes they made during the pandemic. As per the Monster Global Future of Work report, the most popular changes were:

  • Remote flexibility 43%
  • Flexible work schedules 40%
  • Health policies 36%

Monster’s report also found that 46% of companies said these changes will likely be permanent in order to continue supporting their employees, and recruit new candidates.

Along those lines, some companies are also contemplating what work will look like for new hires.  SHRM’s “Navigating COVID-19: Returning to the Workplace” report found that 27% of companies said they are reviewing open positions to determine if they can be completed remotely, while 22% said they are modifying some positions to be completely remote.

The work-from-anywhere and phased approach

Though many blue-collar sectors have already been in full on-site operation throughout the pandemic, some white-collar companies are starting to make a return to the office as well.

Recently, Spotify, Facebook and Salesforce all announced various forms of “work from anywhere” programs, letting their workforces decide whether they want to work from home, come to the office, or use a hybrid work-from-home approach.

The SHRM report also revealed that 53% of companies plan to return to work by the end of July. As to how they will make it happen, 39% are using a phased approach; 11% will return everyone; 11% will return some; and 10% will let employees choose or make case-by-case decisions.

How vaccines factor in

“We’re seeing organisations finally entertaining the idea of returning to the office now that advanced testing, with improved sensitivity/specificity, and vaccines are becoming more readily available,” says Dr. Robert Quigley, Senior Vice President, Global Medical Director of International SOS, a risk mitigation company. “If an organisation is able to take advantage of these preventative measures while implementing scientifically and medically proven procedures to protect its workforce, the interest of getting people back into the office will continue to rise.”

SEI, a global wealth management solutions firm, already began welcoming back part of its workforce in three phases, says Colleen Stratton, global leader workforce development, SEI. “Phase one were personnel that absolutely had to be on campus to do their job: people that were cashing checks, for example, opening mail,” she says.  For phase two, the company looked for volunteers to supplement those on campus, taking the number to just under 200 people. The company is currently planning phase three to bring back a much larger group by summer.

Employee comfort-level is a concern

SEI has already developed and shared a comprehensive return to office guide, and it continues to do regular pulse surveys with employees. “In addition to communicating how we’re making sure that the environment is safe and how we’re making sure that employees are taking care of themselves, we’re making sure that everything is voluntary and that people that are here are coming in on a voluntary basis only,” says Stratton.

As one of the people who’s already back, Stratton says she feel very comfortable. “Here’s an example. It’s just me on my floor that normally would have 50 people in it. And my printer gets cleaned six times a day,” she says.

Staying flexible can help this transition

Along with thorough safety considerations, taking a flexible approach is the most important thing companies can do, says Maggie Laureano, VP of HR for Bureau Veritas North America, a testing, inspection and certification services firm. “The pandemic has taught us that we can often be equally productive in our jobs even if we are doing them a little differently these days. Yet we acknowledge that the collective sense of belonging at work is harder to achieve remotely. This is why it is critical to keep an open mind as we navigate the post-pandemic work environment,” she says.

How the vaccine will impact return to in-person work

An Angus Reid survey found that that 66% of Canadians said they were likely to get the vaccine when it becomes available. And for those who need an extra push, employers may have to pay up.

More than two thirds of employees surveyed by Blackhawk Network said they would accept a monetary incentive to get vaccinated. And some U.S. companies are already doing it, including  InstacartTrader Joes, and Dollar General.

As far as requiring the vaccine, employers should probably hold off, says Kelly DuFord Williams, CEO & Managing Partner of Slate Law Group. “The EEOC recommends that employers merely encourage their employees to take vaccines rather than institute a mandate,” she says. However, she notes, employer incentives are a legally sound method of encouragement for vaccination.

How to figure out what’s right for your company

To successfully transition into a post-COVID world, organisations need to listen to their employees, look at the data, and perhaps reimagine workplace norms. Here are some key strategies:

  1. Rethink the workplace: Going back to a typical 9-to-5 workday might not be in the cards. But flexible scheduling, staggered shifts and shared desks could help keep workers spaced out and lower the overall density. In addition, many companies are reconfiguring workspaces to make it easier to social distance.
  2. Keep employees in the loop: International SOS’ crisis management team, with representatives from HR, security, medical, and operations, has kept an open line of two-way communication where employees could ask questions. “We shared and reviewed the plan with all employees, which outlined detailed mitigation measures from the moment they entered the parking lot to the moment they left the office,” says Dr. Quigley. “Any time our safety protocols were adjusted due to a new government mandate, or a positive case on site, all employees were notified immediately.”
  3. Be transparent when hiring: For those hiring – and in 2021, that’s 8 in 10 companies, according to Monster’s Future of Work Report – it’s important to have open discussions about short- and long-term expectations. “If you hire someone for remote work, they must understand from the start if in-person work will eventually be required,” says Laureano.
  4. Encourage health compliance and vaccines: In-house safety initiatives will be crucial for making employees feel safe and protected. For example, Bureau Veritas’ BeVital program works with the Cleveland Clinic and its own medical directors to develop health and wellbeing programs for its employees. The company is also hoping to offer employees onsite vaccinations when they become available.
  5. Stay focused on what’s right for your company’s needs: Though it can seem like an agonizing decision, the process of deciding if and when to go back to the office will look different for every company. “There is no one size fits all approach to returning to work,” says Quigley. “Every organization has unique needs to sustain business continuity without compromising the health/safety of the workforce.”

Remote vs. in-person: best practices for either approach

As you consider remote vs. in-person work, rest assured that there’s no wrong solution. It all depends on what’s best for your employees and company culture. If your company decides to maintain some kind of remote workforce, our Remote Workforce e-Book can help you navigate long-term management of a remote workforce, as well finding success with recruitment and retention). Download our free guide for tips and strategies.