THE WORK FROM HOME TRANSITION & WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The COVID-19 pandemic is winding down as more people become vaccinated, restrictions are lifted, and office doors reopen. But what impact did the jolt from office life to work-from-home life have on our country's workforce?
Before the pandemic, about 3.6% of the working U.S. population worked from home, according to a 2018 Global Workplace Analytics' analysis. Now, 62% of employed Americans state that they have worked from home at some point during the pandemic. When it became clear that businesses needed to pivot overnight to keep people safe, companies quickly transitioned in-person teams to virtual teams. They downloaded new software to manage communications and collaboration effectively, all while trying to find a way to transform their business models into virtual sales platforms — no matter the product or service. The road was bumpy at first, so how did it go, where are we going, and what happens now?
At the onset of the pandemic, employees adjusted quickly, creating makeshift workspaces out of whatever square footage they could spare. Stacks of boxes became standing desks, family members and pets became special guests during virtual meetings, and productivity increased! Many companies realized that allowing team members to have flexible work hours without workplace distractions enabled employees to accomplish tasks with more focus and faster results.
But in this forced social experiment, who thrived and who fell behind?
In September 2020, when schools resumed, many of them with remote learning, 80% of the 1.1 million people who exited the workforce were women. Women accounted for all of the net job losses in December 2020, while men experienced some professional gain.
We can also see the emotional impact this "experiment" had on some. Isolation and loneliness set in, and Zoom happy hours weren't a sustainable substitute for the real thing. Many employees began panic-working long and odd hours as they juggled the roles of full-time caregiver, teacher, and full-time employee.
Stress and anxiety increased as the fear of losing their job, being forgotten, or letting the company down in a crisis became real. "If I don't answer an email right away or I miss a phone call, they're going to think I'm out lounging on the beach," was the reel that played in employee minds, causing them to log more hours from home than they ever did in the office.
Do we need the regular schedule of office life, or is the freedom of remote work worth some of the downfalls that come with it?
Working from Home Transformed by COVID
The distractions of coworkers, long commutes, expensive business trips, workplace politics, unnecessary meetings, and costly office space were all norms in pre-COVID office life. But were they necessary?
A recent New York Times article notes that Boston University lecturer Constance Noonan Hadley and her team surveyed over 150 individuals in senior management positions. Their research discovered that 71% of respondents agreed that meetings were not efficient. Some believed they got in the way of opportunities for deep thinking.
The business communications platform giant Slack previously took weeks to prepare presentations for staff at their most prominent offices and utilized multiple executives to deliver the elaborate updates. Once the pandemic hit, a Zoom presentation of the same information only took 21 minutes to relay to staff. This 21-minute meeting got rave reviews, and employees valued it more than the elaborate in-person meeting!
No more cubical mates chatting about the blind date they had this weekend, no more trying to figure out what to wear for the next board meeting, no more having to take vacation time to make it to a doctor's appointment or the DMV. WFH brought us all a little bit of freedom, but what is it about the office we used to dread driving to every morning that we miss so much?
What The Office Means
Some argue that the point of the office is not to make people more productive, but to bring them together. Office work is more than productivity. It's about chemistry and workplace culture. The commute to and from the office serves as a time to decompress after a long workday, allowing people to transition back to their "home" self. Some love the office for allowing the freedom to take a break from home life and provide a chance to be someone different, which for many, enriches who they are at home.
The office also encourages team members to create more authentic and inspiring connections with coworkers. Imaginative ideas bounce back and forth during brainstorming sessions, and innovation ensues. Comradery, collaboration, reading physical and social cues, and stepping away from the home self to become the professional self contributes to what made the office and the people inside it great.
Going over a drawing, scents, textures, and design virtually is painful for those who work in the creative field. A screen share doesn't bring the energy and inspiration that working on a creative design in person does. For them, the office means creation and serves as an incubator for making art come to life.
Post-COVID Transition Models
Employees who aren't reminiscing about what office life used to look like are making it clear that they prefer not to return to the physical workspace. Research shows that people are choosing work-life balance over climbing the corporate ladder by changing jobs or taking a pay cut to be in a flexible hybrid work environment.
So, what can companies do to retain their workforce?
First, organizations must determine which work model best serves their team while also considering the benefits and disadvantages of granting remote-work autonomy. Though workplace politics were thought to be a thing of the past as remote work increased, those politics can still exist if an ‘Us vs. Them' mentality is allowed to fester between the in-office and WFH groups.
It is also vital to consider the research that shows women with children are 50% more likely to want to work from home full time, and at the same time, WFH employees have a 50% lower promotion rate. Single young professionals might come into the office five days a week, thus increasing their visibility with leadership, while parents who choose to WFH for several days each week might be lost in the background. Leaders need to keep this in mind and address it proactively if they want their workforce to remain diverse and genuinely inclusive.
Companies are experimenting with avatars, alternative chat functions that are less invasive than a face-to-face Zoom, and threading in opportunities to bring their teams together in a physical space. Some companies have chosen to plan an elaborate yearly event, and others are exploring more flexible schedules. Revolut, a banking start-up in London worth $5.5 billion, will allow 2,000+ employees to work anywhere in the world for up to 2 months a year.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg plans to have 50% of staff working remotely within 5-10 years and intends to hire from outside California. Big business realizes that their hiring pool is much vaster if they go the remote-work route. They can find the perfect fit for their Silicon Valley position, hidden in a small mountain town out east.
Other large companies like Zillow, Indeed, Novartis, and Microsoft have decided to go the optional route, giving their employees a choice to either be in the office or at home. The hybrid model allows employees to work a few days a week at home and a few in the office; this is the direction Apple, British Airways, Ford, Spotify, and BP are currently taking.
MMR Research and the Work from Home Model
For some time before the onset of the pandemic, MMR Research was trending towards a hybrid-remote model. While we are headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, our team of researchers and support staff span the United States. We adopted Zoom and Microsoft Teams to better serve our team members and clients. The transition to these platforms at the end of 2019 allowed us to rapidly adapt to new ways of working as our vendors and clients followed suit.
Many of our researchers were hesitant to leave the office and potentially lose the benefits discussed above. The ability to collaborate on projects, social interaction, and work in a designated space would surely be missed! Surprisingly, team members who worked in the office quickly adapted to the WFH model, and pre-conceived hesitations promptly disappeared. Further, those who were already working remotely could leverage new protocols and best practices adopted both internally and outside our organization.
The nature of our industry allows our team to deliver meaningful, high-quality research from anywhere. We have no plans to adopt an official remote work policy or eliminate our office space entirely. There will always be a space for team presentations, face-to-face discovery sessions, and networking at large in research. We will, however, be reconsidering what the office means to MMR, joining the rest of our clients, vendors, and the corporate world at large.