Covid-19 has fundamentally disrupted and changed the way we work. As organizations brace for the pandemic’s far-reaching impacts across every industry in the year ahead, business leaders have come to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to workforce management. Wall Street has been aggressive in getting employees back to the office, while Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google have instead opted to extend work-from-home guidance until summer 2021, reinforcing the stark differences in workforce re-entry across sectors. But, despite companies being at different stages of the re-entry journey, one piece remains consistent: employees—across markets and industries—are experiencing the pandemic on a deeply psychological level.
For many, feelings of anxiety and concern are innately attached to workplace re-entry — stemming from physical changes in the office to account for social distancing, the need to commute via public transit and the lack of adequate childcare. In fact, 73% of people in the U.S. fear a return to the workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety, according to a recent survey from Envoy. Yet, in the face of these concerns, many employees are craving the face-to-face collaboration an office environment provides. A recent global survey we conducted of 3,000 office users, for example, shows a strong connection around office re-entry and collaboration, where 44% of respondents said human interaction and socialization is what they miss most.
While the function of the office will continue to evolve during the pandemic, people will always need a place that aids community-building and inspiration, furthering face-to-face relationships that technology struggles to replicate. Despite successful work-from-home strategies across industries, our recent Human Experience report, which surveyed over 2,000 global office workers, found that the majority of employees want to return to the workplace in some capacity, with 72% of respondents reporting a preference of integrating working from home two days per week. As companies consider a transition back into the physical workspace in the year ahead, senior leaders must recognize that the office will forever remain a fundamental part of corporate culture — from offering face-to-face socialization and collaboration to the tangible manifestations of company values and identity through team photos, awards and other items that foster a sense of belonging.
Listening to your employees builds trust
Now more than ever, business leaders need to be in lock-step with their HR leaders, who are on the frontlines of corporate strategy in carrying the important responsibility of anticipating employees’ wants and needs as the pandemic continues to impact every sector and region differently. As we continue to adapt to our changing workplace, listening to and acknowledging employee concerns will remain essential in the year ahead — because when employees feel better about their work environment, the whole company wins.
Our research indicates that the physical workplace has a direct impact on employee experience, which is instrumental in retaining and attracting top talent. Employees who feel connected to their company and have a sense of belonging are more productive and more inclined to stay with the organization. Seventy percent of respondents to our Human Experience survey, for instance, reported that an office environment is more conducive to team building and management support.
To this end, we are advising clients to collect feedback about what drives people, their preferences and needs – whether it be through anonymous surveys or creating a portal to share thoughts and concerns on an internal site. The more companies can create these channels for an open dialogue to listen and acknowledge employees’ needs, the more willing they’ll be to give their opinions and share feedback when asked.
The workplace must be front and center for an effective talent strategy
In the months immediately following the height of the pandemic, many companies launched expanded programs to support their employees’ well-being and ease the sudden transition to remote work. From extending paid days off to providing a stipend to pay for work-from-home essentials, many business leaders understood the implications of remote work on employee engagement. However, in the months to come, change management, ongoing communication and business continuity plans should maintain a focus on both re-entry and shutdown scenarios to support the fluid nature of the current workplace dynamic.
And while it is certain that top employee concerns including safety (cleanliness), commuting, childcare and job security will remain a continued challenge for many organizations, there are ample ways businesses can remain vigilant and proactive to address these concerns long-term.
As your company continues to optimize your approach to re-entry both in the office and with employees more broadly, consider: maintaining extensive cleaning protocols, signage and social distancing practices; communicating and showcasing enhanced cleaning protocols and how the building fights airborne disease (e.g. HVAC, filtration systems, airflow, etc.); providing access to hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies; and investing in health and wellness products such as visitor and employee screenings, health screening services, workplace experience analytics, risk assessments and internal air quality monitoring services.
Change management and ongoing communication from leadership will also continue to play a critical role in alleviating concerns, as employees may remain understandably nervous about returning to the office. To aid this effort, education and transparency will be key to employee engagement. At JLL, for example, we launched an internal campaign called “Step Forward” designed to educate our employees across the U.S. on what to expect in advance of returning to their workplace. Signifying that the journey to re-entry begins with a single, physical step, the campaign included engaging signage in lobbies, elevators and on office floors across our U.S. offices to guide employees and help them feel more comfortable navigating the space in a new way.
Above all, adaptable guidelines for your workforce will remain key in the year ahead. Providing employees with flexibility on where they work or how often they come into their workplace will help reduce stressors from personal obligations that may prevent them from returning, such as child and family care or commuting concerns tied to public transportation. Support their decisions and ensure they have the tools they need to perform their roles – at home or in the office.
The workplace of the future: A renewed focus on well-being
The pandemic has forever changed our definition of the workplace. And while there are endless elements of our current reality that businesses cannot control, there are ongoing strategies we must optimize to ensure we’re empowering employees to succeed during this unprecedented time.
With the coronavirus magnifying the importance of health, well-being and safety, this means creating a workplace of the future that allocates less space to individuals and more space for innovation, collaboration, learning, socialization and employee experience. HR’s input into these plans will be instrumental in creating a workspace that represents the organization’s culture and employees’ work-life needs; in fact, recent reports find that 86% of business leaders recognize employee needs will be at the heart of the future workplace design.
In the year ahead, those with people-centric workplace strategies that focus on talent, workforce flexibility, health, well-being and the human experience will be the winners and leaders of business post-pandemic.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing employee-centric workplace changes. The key is to be authentic and do what feels right for your people, culture and business, using insights from your workforce to guide the needs of your organization.