Back to the office: it's not enough to dictate when people can WFH

Return to work policies will become deal-breakers for future talent / Back to the office: it's not enough to dictate when people can WFH

Jason Bailis, global chief operating officer at Oliver, says businesses need to operate in 'dual mode' in order to return to work responsibly and do what's right for their staff as individuals.

How to help your global workforce return to work (RTW) following a pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge that no operations professional was trained for.

Questions such as: ‘when should people return to the office?’; ‘how permanently?’; and ‘where can we make an exception?’ have presented unprecedented conundrums for leaders across the board.

We’ve all read how many big businesses have begun communicating their RTW policies to their staff over the past few months – from JP Morgan bringing back 50% of its workforce to Allen & Overy implementing a weekly rotating RTW schedule and Google sticking to home working until at least July 2021.

However, as some governments encourage workers back to desks, the fact remains that this is a complex and delicate process that’s going to need a lot of thoughtfulness, consultation and patience in order to perfect.

So what can brands and businesses do to ensure that their RTW policies are needs-conscious as well as economically effective?

This issue can't be solved with a broad brush

Before doing anything else, businesses have to understand the evolved needs of their clients, their organisation and most importantly their staff who are now living in a very different world.

As we found through our own staff surveys, some people definitely want to return to the office, some don’t and can’t, and some want to return but only some of the time. Many of our clients are in the same boat. It tells us that the way forward is to focus entirely on the needs of the individual.

The most successful RTW approaches will therefore be born from businesses that are willing to let their people guide them; listening intently to their employees and building policies that strike the right balances.

We asked 3000 international staff members twice (once within a few weeks of lockdown and once just last month) for their RTW views. We received opinions that were extremely enlightening and as multidimensional as our workforce – views that are influenced entirely by people’s unique preferences and country-by-country nuances.

Amid all the complexity, however, there were some common themes that are helping us develop a 'dual mode' approach to RTW, where simultaneously large parts of the workforce can return to the office whilst recognising that some parts of the workforce will either permanently or partially remain working from home. This duality will require subtle, but profound changes in how the business operates.

We found that:

  • People’s desire to work from home changed over the course of four months: Our staff noticed that they could be more productive at home, enjoying more time (saved from not commuting) and less money spent from not traveling and eating lunch out every day. This desire to continue to work at least partially from home increased nine points to 85% during lockdown, as people became accustomed to a new way of working - noticing benefits such as spending more time with family, eating more healthily, flexibility of hours and an overall better work-life balance.
  • The commute is the biggest issue for most people when considering RTW: 68% of our staff (up seven points during lockdown) said that they really like commuting less, citing it as their biggest fear for RTW. In fact, through our surveys, we realized that some of our employees were commuting as much as four to six hours a day. This was normal to the individuals, but it took a pandemic for the workplace to see the absurdity of the situation.
  • Cross-border collaboration was more accessible and effective than people thought it would be: With tech such as Zoom and MS Team, many people feel like they’re more united with the wider network than ever before. Many have established relationships with far flung parts of the organisation versus just the closest to them in the office. And even teams that resided in different buildings in the same city, or even on different floors in the same building, are working far more collaboratively than ever.
  • 71% of our staff felt that clients were more open to having their teams working from home: This was up nine points from the beginning of lockdown) as companies realized that strong collaboration was able to continue substituting technology for physical proximity and through newly identified ways of working.
  • Tech has helped us see the difference between collaboration and interruption: Our survey showed that, for a long time prior to Covid-19, we may have been confusing interruption (going over to someone’s desk to ask them a question simply because they are there) with true collaboration. WFH has therefore seemed to have led us to improve our prioritisation and collaboration methods.
  • 53% of our staff said the disadvantages of working from home were not sitting with their team as well as socialising less: Many commented that sitting with colleagues and friends actually made a positive difference to their day.
  • The boundary between work and life was blurred from working from home: However, this concern dissipated as time went on, with people finding the right balance for them (62% enjoyed better work-life balance).
  • Overall, people’s optimal amount of time they’d like to spend working from home in the future increased to three days over the course of lockdown: Those preferring to work three days a week from home rose to 41%, and those preferring only two days a week dropped to 28% within the four months.

The ad industry needs to focus on what's right for individuals

It’s clear from our internal surveys that RTW policies will become deal-breakers for future talent.

It’s not enough to simply dictate when people can work from home. Businesses now need to appreciate the whole person; their childcare commitments, spouse arrangements, personal health preferences, fears, local rush-hour schedules and other work-life considerations.

What is clear, however, is that there’s no going backwards. RTW has created an interesting dichotomy for businesses: we need to kick-start our businesses and our economies for sure, but we also need to find a way that gives employees efficient, agile and safe workplaces, wherever that may be.

In Oliver's case, where remote-working is built into the model, we know that both are possible simultaneously. It could be a blend of being at home, at one of our central hubs or at one of our 200+ client offices around the world - each already gifted with their own unique way of working.

At the heart of this process is a commitment to maintain the trust and ‘humanness’ that businesses felt towards employees at the height of the pandemic: a sincere and authentic message that people come first. Because they really do.

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