Here are a few questions keeping leadership teams up at night these days: Should our company return to the office during the pandemic? If yes, when should we do so? If no, is there any reason to go back to the office at all?
So far, we’ve seen how many big companies are responding to such uncertainties. In August, organizations such as Google, ViacomCBS, and Salesforce began announcing that their workforces will continue to work from home through at least half of 2021 because of COVID-19. Twitter, Facebook, Square, Slack, Zillow, and Shopify told their employees they never have to return to the office for that same reason—and one more. For them, remote work is working. Why wouldn’t it continue to work well into the future?
That’s a good question, and there’s plenty of research that lays out the pros and cons of continued, company-wide remote work. For instance:
Pro: Remote work eliminates commutes, which is good because Americans spend an average of 100 hours commuting every year and 41 hours stuck in traffic. Unsurprisingly, this increases stress and anxiety.
Pro: Working from home allows for location flexibility, meaning companies can tap talent from a broader range of geographic locations, and maybe even spend less on compensation depending on a person’s cost of living.
Con: It’s harder to separate work and home lives while remote. As a result, 69 percent of employees are currently experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home.
Con: Remote work leads to mental health challenges among employees. In April, 75 percent of employees reported feeling socially isolated while working from home.
You get the idea.
However, although this information offers much to consider, none of it trumps what employees want, especially when envisioning post-pandemic work. The most important step any company can take right now, for both morale and retention, is to ask employees for feedback on their long-term work preferences.
So in October, InHerSight did. We polled more than 1,000 women on whether they’d like to return to an office full-time, part-time, or not at all after the pandemic is over. Only 3 percent of women say they’d prefer zero remote work in the future, aka going back to life as most of us knew it. Fifty percent would like to work remotely full-time, and 47 percent part-time.
Despite all of the changes over the past year, this finding is unfailingly consistent with what InHerSight already knows about supporting working women. The option to work remotely without judgement or micromanagement (we call this trust) equals flexibility for many, and such flexibility has long been one of the top four things women want most from their employers. If we look at diversity more broadly, the ability to adjust your schedule—to decide whether you work remotely some, most, or all days—is also a huge asset in supporting employees of all demographics.
Donald Thompson, CEO of Walk West and consulting group The Diversity Movement, says having a flexible work schedule is a top priority in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, and anecdotally, the most desired benefit among today’s employees. “People in general have this thing called lives,” he says. “That’s whether someone is carrying for an aging parent, whether somebody is differently abled and needs to manage public transportation differently. If you have a certain set of times that are hard and fast, and they happen to miss a bus route, then they have to go another 45 minutes out of the way to arrive at a certain time.” Raising families in dual-income households becomes needlessly challenging when employees are required to work in-office from 9 to 5. Plus, lack of flexibility deters employees from pursuing their personal goals.
“People are really working hard to make sure their professional goals fit with their personal aspirations,” Thompson says. “Time flexibility, remote work, and flexible schedules are the answer to that.”
Gender equity advisor Emily Howe, who consults for Silicon Valley startups and other male-majority sectors, says millennials, currently the largest age group in our workforce, value flexibility most highly. “Millennials of all genders really want that flexible, results-only work arrangement,” she says. “They’re pretty much done with that live-all-night-at-your-tech-company, stay-until-3-in-the-morning atmosphere. They want to be able to go home on time and do whatever they want to—be with their family or have hobbies and downtime. So there’s been a real shift.”
The decision of whether your organization should return to in-person work during the pandemic or ever is fraught with challenges unique to your business, but what we know from our pre-COVID data and talking to experts like Thompson and Howe is that employees’ desire to stay home, to schedule work around life, isn’t a product of the pandemic. It’s a much sought-after benefit that was often unattainable until it was made invaluable. And that’s how you should be considering it when you weigh whether to return to business as usual.
“It’s going to be tough for companies to go back to that old structure if there are tools that allow for good productivity in a work-from-home situation,” Thompson says.
To remain competitive for talent, especially diverse talent, in a drastically altered environment, remote work can’t simply disappear. Take note of the nearly 80 percent of women employees in our October survey who told us they want to work from home post-pandemic. For them, remote work is now a must-have. You should expect them to ask for it.
About our sources
Donald Thompson is the CEO of Walk West and The Diversity Movement. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. As an entrepreneur, he has led companies that have attained successful exits with strong returns for shareholders and employees. He’s also an angel investor, personally infusing over a million dollars in North Carolina ventures, including Creative Allies, Gryppers, and SpokeHub, all with African American CEOs at the helm.
With a big firm background in management consulting and organizational change—and an master’s degree in gender/cultural studies—Femily (aka Emily Howe) advises tech and other male-majority companies, like law and finance to help them advance womxn, foster inclusion of all kinds, and reduce workplace bias. Her clients include companies such as SoFi, Sonos, 23andMe, EA, splunk, and more.