Now that employees are finding their way back to the office, companies and their HR teams must stay on point about their return-to-work policies, hybrid work details and overall expectations.
Experts urged companies to stay flexible but set clear expectations for employees, regardless of where they are working.
"That includes demonstrating the productivity standards that are expected," said Tiffany Davis, vice president of HR for ADP, based in Alpharetta, Ga. "To continue to support their employees no matter where they work, the culture of an organization is key—it plays a significant role in associates wanting to return to the workplace."
Davis said HR has a significant role in helping lead the sometimes-tricky discussions around the way people work today.
"Since the start of the pandemic, the dynamics of work have completely shifted and conversations are no longer as simple as making sure organizations have the tools they need to succeed in the remote or in-person environments," she said.
Instead, Davis said, the questions employers are pondering are becoming much more complex. For example:
- How do we help associates and leaders adapt to a hybrid model? How can we create flexibility?
- How do you ensure that leaders are focused on the right activities when they have associates in the office?
- How do you maintain the right level of engagement while associates are at home?
- How do you ensure quality experiences are still occurring in the work that you do?
- How can leaders best support their associates when they cannot always physically see them?
Encouraging the Return to the Workplace
Davis said messaging should "really center on how being in the office is beneficial to employees and their respective roles and priorities—the amount of collaboration and opportunities for them to be more productive, the camaraderie that can be built with their peers, and the ability to come to solutions together as a team."
That can be challenging given the general office workforce's attitudes about remote work, hybrid work and a full-time return to the office. Many say they'd prefer to work at least a hybrid schedule, while others balk at any in-person return.
The number of people working primarily from home tripled between 2019 and 2021—from about 9 million to 26.6 million, according to the 2021 American Community Survey, which the U.S. Census Bureau just released on Sept. 15.
"Employees with the ability to work remotely are largely anticipating a hybrid office environment going forward—one that allows them to spend part of their week working remotely and part in the office," Gallup reported.
Nonetheless, office access company Kastle Systems reported in September that it is seeing the highest rate of workers returning to offices since the pandemic.
Office use on average was 47.5 percent of early 2020 levels over the five business days from Sept. 8 to Sept. 14 in the 10 major metro areas Kastle Systems monitors.
The company, which tracks security swipes into buildings, said that was the highest percentage since late March 2020.
Midweek days were especially strong, with office use for Tuesday and Wednesday at about 55 percent of the pre-pandemic workforce, Kastle reported.
According to CNBC's Q3 Global CFO Survey, 33 percent of companies allow workers to choose between an in-office or remote schedule; 24 percent said they require employees to be in the office for specific days, but it's less than five per week; 29 percent say employees must come in to the office less than five days per week, and they get to choose which days; and 5 percent require workers in the office five days per week.
The typical employee works from home 1.5 days per week, and employers plan to offer an average of 0.7 work-from-home days per week after the pandemic, but workers want 1.7 days, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., which surveyed people from 27 countries.
Leaders Must Share Benefits of Being in Office
"We will continue to see more employees returning to their workplaces, especially as school is now in session," Davis said. "Many parents might find it easier to operate on a more defined schedule, especially during the school year."
She said leaders sharing the benefits of being in the office will help draw more people back in to collaborate and connect with one another.
Earlier this year, according to ADP Research Institute's People at Work Study, two-thirds of the workforce (64 percent) said they would consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full time.
Younger people (18- to 24-year-olds) are the most reluctant (71 percent) to return to the workplace full time, ADP found.
Furthermore, employees are prepared to make compromises for more flexibility or a hybrid approach to work location, with more than half (52 percent) willing to accept a pay cut—of as much as 11 percent—to guarantee this arrangement.
"If an employee doesn't like their employer's return-to-workplace plan, there's a real chance employees may choose to look at other companies that might not be requiring a return to the physical workplace or that are requiring less days in person," Davis said.
"Companies will have to determine if their strategies require a return to the workplace for all roles currently working a remote or hybrid schedule or if they might offer more flexibility for certain roles. The important piece is really defining a comprehensive strategy that works for your respective organization, aligning with employees and building accountability to that decision."
Tax Implications for Work-from-Home Employees
Remote work triggers complex taxation and compliance implications, particularly when employees live across state lines.
"It can be hazardous to employers, in ways that aren't necessarily apparent," according to ADP.
Not all employers may be able to reasonably permit employees to work from any U.S. state.
The "work from anywhere" concept has been taken literally by a growing number of workers, who may now be working from a variety of locations, such as hotels or vacation homes or with relatives in other states.
If not properly managed, many circumstances could create significant new administrative burdens or other problems for employers, such as tax withholding, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, benefits, wage and hour laws, and emerging laws such as privacy and paid leave.
Working More, and Happier, When Working from Home
Another consideration, based on ADP's People at Work research, is that people working from home are also more prone to working longer hours, as much as an extra 8.7 hours per week.
Additionally, those working from home are more inclined to say they are optimistic about the next five years (89 percent), compared with their peers reporting to an office (77 percent)
Those working from home are more satisfied with employment (90 percent), compared to those onsite (82 percent).
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Reston, Va.