The growing concern that work-from-anywhere flexibility will disappear in 2022
The hybrid model of blending remote work with in-office processes is increasingly favored by employees but many decision-makers still need to catch up with that prevailing sentiment, according to a new survey conducted by research firm Ipsos and leading cloud enterprise software provider RingCentral.
The survey of more than 9,000 workers across five countries found that while the majority of American workers (80%) have the freedom to work from anywhere, a sliver of the respondents (12%) believe that this same freedom will carry forward into the new year.
At the heart of this disconnect is the gap between employees and senior-level decision-makers who contend returning to the office will benefit them on various levels. They increasingly want to return to physical spaces. The survey points out how 46% of business decision-makers felt isolated and lonely while working from home compared to only 34% of remote workers.
Some workforces saw immense benefit from remote work, which should lead the C-suite to reconsider policies asking employees to come to the office.
“It is somewhat surprising to discover that the majority of respondents said they were happier, healthier and more empathetic than before the pandemic,” said Gunjan Aggarwal, executive vice president and chief people officer of RingCentral. “In an environment that has certainly challenged us all, no matter where you were, it would appear it wasn’t all bleak. Half of the surveyed workers reported being happier at work, and 57% said working hybrid or remotely during COVID made them more empathetic toward people.”
This survey echoes the findings of other 2021 reports on the new priorities for an increasingly remote employee base. When a PwC survey found that 65% of Americans were looking for a job in August 2021, “more workplace flexibility” was among the top three reasons for finding a new career.
Also, a Stanford study concluded working from home boosted productivity among a group of 16,000 workers by 13% over the course of nine months. It also revealed remote work led to capital cost savings of about $1,400 per employee from lower office and IT costs, and reduced turnover savings of about $260 per employee per year.
Many Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 firms responded to how the pandemic shifted the tectonic plates of traditional work procedures. Shopify, Box, Quora, Basecamp and Dropbox have adopted remote-first work policies, while hybrid models are now found at Facebook, Twitter, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte and Salesforce.
At 3M, internal polling showed that 87% of employees valued flexibility in where they could work, The New York Times reported.
As open-minded as some major firms have been, other executives have yet to recognize the importance that workers place on securing a hybrid approach to the workplace. The RingCentral survey found that 43% of business decision-makers want to connect more with employees and return to the office, compared to only 16% of workers.
Lack of clarity and vision in developing a new workplace plan could also play a role in how workers consider their employers in the coming months. The survey noted that three-quarters of business decision-makers are confident in their employer’s plan for return to office, while only half of workers are confident.
Even if employers ease off the gas on bringing workers back into the office, they have to consider a key nuance of remote-first or hybrid work models: With the rise of videoconferencing, they have to ensure all voices can be heard.
In an interview with Time, GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan said about online meetings during the pandemic: "I think it’s going to take a lot of experimentation as to what are the best communication methods. What are the sort of clear three or four rules that you’ll have to adopt to make sure that everyone is an equal participant in the conversation?"
In a hybrid environment, nobody should be left behind, said RingCentral’s Aggarwal. “Technology has the ability to make a huge impact by tailoring the experience to wherever work finds us from one moment to the next. In fact, doing so is critical to the success of individuals, teams, organizations and whole economies going forward,” she added.
To guarantee participant equity in meetings, Aggarwal highlighted three important areas business leaders and people managers should keep top-of-mind:
- Be even more inclusive. Ensure everyone can speak and is given time to speak, perhaps by nominating a person responsible for facilitating commentary from every single participant.
- Be engaged and act engaged. Meetings are not the time to multitask. Create a space so all participants engage deeply with one another to bring about a social experience.
- Adopt a flexible mindset. Employees need to have access to the right communication and collaboration tools that enable them to connect with customers and colleagues any way they want. For example, some employees may prefer to use audio instead of video for meetings. Certain teams may find it more effective to rely mostly on messaging during the day to collaborate on projects.
A survey finding underscores her last point: Two-thirds of respondents say connecting online through voice or video calls is as good as in person for work-related tasks. While there may have been an initial struggle to leverage video-based meetings, for example, our increasingly digital workforce finessed the rough edges of mid-2020 to find its comfort zone in communicating through that medium.
If there’s any indication employers are increasingly adopting remote-first work models, look at real estate. The office vacancy rate in the U.S. is expected to climb to 20.2% by the end of 2022, compared to 16.8% at the end of 2019. A survey of 248 chief operating officers found that one-third plan to reduce office space in the coming years as leases expire, a McKinsey report notes.
The RingCentral survey and other data point to a growing preference for adopting a new workforce approach built on the foundation of employee feedback. The status quo just won’t cut it any longer.
“Every company is different and needs to evaluate what model works best for them, their employees and their customers,” says Aggarwal. “It must be a conversation. Listen to what’s most important for your employees, your work teams and your customers. One size fits none.”