LAS VEGAS — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced worksites to shut their doors, organizations discovered what many business leaders thought was impossible: They could continue to operate successfully with a remote workforce.
That transition was forced and abrupt, however, and "by simply letting it happen, rather than making it happen, organizations missed out on potential cost savings [and] attraction and retention opportunities," said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a San Diego-based consultancy, during a concurrent session Sept. 10 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021.
As more organizations reopen their offices and bring workers back to the worksite, either full time or on a hybrid basis that divides employees' time between working onsite and at home, "we're learning that hybrid is harder than what we've done for the last year and a half," Lister said.
Studies show many employees would like to be home three to four days a week and come into the worksite one or two days. Managers, however, fearing that remote workers won't be as productive, typically want employees in the office at least three to four days per week.
Savings and Productivity
The evidence suggests those fears are unwarranted, Lister said. Her consultancy estimates that the average employer saves $11,000 a year per half-time telecommuter, or $1.1 million per year for 100 part-time telecommuting employees. This savings is a result of increased productivity and reductions in office space costs, as well as decreased employee absenteeism and turnover.
For the most part, "employees are more productive working from home," Lister said. Microsoft has estimated that at the office, employees are interrupted every three minutes, resulting in a loss of 35 minutes a day. And once they have been distracted, it can take them 15 minutes to get back on track.
Productivity increases also result from eliminating commuting time and from reducing absenteeism. "Employees who are not feeling great and may not want to commute to the office that day may be perfectly willing to stay home and work," she pointed out.
Another significant cost savings comes from not having to lease as much office space.
Good for the Planet
Remote work means fewer commuters, said Cynthia Milota, Chicago-based director of workplace strategy and change management at international design firm Ware Malcomb, during the same session. An increase in remote work globally could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality, she noted.
While studies show that women are more likely to prefer remote work, research also indicates remote workers can face discrimination in terms of pay and promotion decisions.
Despite this, remote and hybrid work arrangements represent "an opportunity to increase diversity and inclusion—if we do it right," Milota said. Remote work can make organizations more welcoming for parents and family caregivers, who may not be able to work onsite full time.
The choices employers now face, Milota noted, include advising employees to:
- Return to the worksite on a full-time basis.
- Return four to five days per week.
- Return two to three days per week.
- Exercise discretion to set their own onsite/offsite work schedule.
Another flexible work option is to institute core hours when everyone must be available, while allowing employees the ability to schedule their remaining time—either to work early or work late.
Employers should also keep in mind that 15 percent to 20 percent of workers "just want to work in the office," Lister noted, either because they feel they lack the discipline to be fully productive at home or they miss in-person interactions with colleagues. For these workers, if your organization has shifted to remote work overall, "consider co-working spaces and providing stipends for employees to go work in those places," she suggested.
Find the Right Strategy
Lister and Milota advised HR professionals to put forward to management the business case that makes the most sense for their organization. "What's right for others might not be right for your organization," Lister said.
They recommended that HR professionals:
- Identify strategies to gain executive buy-in for workplace change in general and flexible workplace strategies in particular by focusing on productivity, hiring/retention and cost savings.
- Examine and appraise the significance of cross-functional teams involving HR, IT, corporate real estate and other areas of the organization in workplace change initiatives.
- Establish goals and measurable results for flexible and remote-work options and be able to provide examples.
In the end, "If you want to keep your people, you need to find ways to accommodate them," Lister said.