How to think about remote, hybrid and in-office work.

Three years after the start of the pandemic, companies are still figuring out the best way to bring employees back to work productively at the same time as many are making decisions about the long-term strategy, culture (inclusive of mission, purpose, values and behaviors) needed for success. These decisions should not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, fully understanding what your long-term strategy and culture will be should have an impact on decisions you make about where your employees are doing their work. 

Understanding how to achieve active collaboration is a critical element in these decisions; one element is knowing the right work environment your company needs to ensure you’re maximizing in-person time where employees are collaborating to accomplish their goals. We have seen that company decisions about remote work tend to vary by industry, role and even employee tenure.

Is remote work still an issue?

While many companies had remote work options pre-pandemic, for those who went fully remote during COVID, it’s been harder to get employees back. The number of employees working full- or partially remote is hard to pin down. The Labor Department earlier this year noted that 72.5% of businesses said their employees rarely or never telework. But other very recent surveys shows that remote work still accounts for just over one quarter of paid full-time workdays in the U.S., although down slightly from 33% in 2021. 

Another worrisome piece of information: an EY/Parthenon study from May suggests that employee productivity has taken a hit, with 5 consecutive quarters of year over year declines, the longest period of declines ever recorded. 

For employers, focusing on culture and values, regardless of where employees are working, can improve employee engagement.

We already know that some big employers have started pulling employees back into the office after initially allowing remote work, citing productivity. I talk to leaders and board members regularly, both of large corporations and emerging growth companies. One approach to increasing employee engagement that appears to be gaining traction is the practice of creating purposeful time in the office. Whether that is time to plan, develop team members, build insights through active collaboration and brainstorming; it is time where people connect face to face and collaborate. It is scheduled in advance and has a very clear purpose and goal. 

Leaders also are looking for strategies to energize their workforce as part of human capital management, including increasing engagement and building resiliency. Some companies are working to help managers better develop remote workers by taking a much more intentional approach. 

Here are some questions I ask leaders to think about as they work to develop their teams.

  1. Who is learning to lead by reading the room of people vs. leading a video gallery? This includes thinking through how one communicates, inspires and motivates their team regardless of the setting.
  2. How is career progression playing out for those who work remotely vs. those who are in the office at least some of the time?

Employees should think through long-term development & advancement implications of hybrid and remote work.

There are reasons to think carefully about your decision on location of work. We know networking can be harder to do when you’re remote. One significant benefit to being on site, at least some of the time, is the serendipity factor: the ability to run into someone at the coffee kiosk that you’ve been trying to meet with or talk to. More broadly, the ability to connect with people on the way to and from meetings or when you end up on the same elevator can be priceless. Serendipitous meetings can lead to surprising accomplishments, just because two people ran into each other. 

Let’s be clear; this is not about being a Luddite. There are many tech tools making it much easier to be a productive hybrid or remote worker. But these tools do not take the place of in-person interaction.

How companies might move forward

I mentioned active collaboration earlier. How cohesive your culture is – how your workers believe in, feel confident in and welcome in your culture — will have a marked impact on their success and yours. 

The good news is that creating a cohesive culture is up to you as company leaders. Be very intentional about how your strategy, culture and values, as well as talent development and operating models, apply to remote and hybrid worlds. Creating a strong culture needs to be meaningful for the employee working at their desk at home or in the office, on a sales call, or in an operating room. That may mean providing clearly defined guidelines and principals for hybrid and remote work; and how to optimize work regardless of the setting. Companies that can motivate their employees with strong development opportunities and operating models that can be navigated regardless of where employees work will be the most competitive in a tight labor market.