Modern technology developments made it possible for knowledge workers and others to work remotely, but remote work didn’t gain significant traction until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Suddenly, public buildings limited onsite access and organizations had to quickly transform operations by leveraging technology that employees could operate from home. For many employees, work from home benefits were immediate. They could eliminate the time, resources and stress associated with daily commuting. They had more autonomy conducting their work, which led to reported increases in productivity, and they enjoyed a better work-life balance. Most employees embraced remote work, as was reflected in McKinsey’s recent American Opportunity Survey which indicates that 87% of people choose to work flexibly when given the option across a wide range of jobs and industry sectors.
Employers experienced benefits as well. In a survey conducted for a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, Why Working From Home Will Stick, more than 85% of employees reported working more efficiently at home. Organizations were able to reimagine and downsize their physical office spaces, reducing operational expenses. In addition, their new ability to hire from anywhere opened up a greater talent pool for employers to draw from while many workers prioritize flexibility and quality of life over pay.
As a result, flexible work is here to stay. An extensive Gallup survey in early 2022 found that 32% of workers prefer to work exclusively remote, 59% prefer hybrid work and only 9% prefer to work fully on site. The report concludes that “failing to offer flexible work arrangements is a significant risk to an organization’s hiring, employee engagement, performance, wellbeing and retention strategies.”
Create Flexibility that Works for All
While all groups of workers strongly prefer the flexibility to work from home, early career and lower income workers face greater challenges.
Early career workers have a stronger need for at work relationships, mentorship, learning on the job and building networks inside and outside of the business. Younger workers are more likely to prioritize growing professionally over family and work-life balance. Leaders must seek and develop creative ways to intentionally meet younger worker’s connectivity and professional development needs.
Lower income workers can find work from home particularly challenging. In the NBER survey, workers who reported being less efficient at home cited lack of adequate workspace, interruptions from children and adults, lack of equipment and poor internet connection as major reasons. McKinsey found that the two groups most likely to be offered remote work and not take it were those aged 55-to-64 (19%) who may be set in their ways, and those in the lowest earnings scale (17%). Organizations must be conscious of worker socio-economic status and their capacity to work from home. Working from home is a distinct experience for a mid-to-late career professional with adequate equipment and a home office versus a younger worker sharing a cramped living space.
As organizations pursue diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, they should be mindful that a diverse workforce means different experiences and perceptions of hybrid work and remote work. Being mindful starts with engagement and connectivity, discerning what each employee needs to succeed and making sure that flexible work doesn’t inadvertently exclude or hinder the development of some employees.
Learning and Improving
The flexibility of hybrid and remote work is overwhelmingly beneficial to employees as indicated by their expressed preferences. Employers can also benefit from larger talent pools, organizational resilience (enough to withstand a pandemic), productive, happy workers and lower costs. Those represent the immediate, low-hanging fruit benefits that learning through experience and feedback can continuously improve.
As we all embrace the new workplace, we need to make sure it works better for all segments of diverse workforces by accounting for the unique needs of all. Going forward, employers will gain competitiveness by understanding and meeting their employee needs and providing the environment and work options they need to succeed.
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