Renee Dye, PhD, Associate Professor, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School
This final post in my three-blog series grapples with the complicated issues of where and how work will take place in the wake of COVID, how the careers of ambitious employees will advance in a post-pandemic world, and how businesses should be thinking several moves ahead as they consider how to attract, cultivate, and retain talent
Remote work is not new. Technology – especially the advent of high-speed internet – has made working from home possible for many years now. However, past employees who have opted for remote work have tended to be individual contributors (think a call-center employee or an HR analyst) who value flexibility and/or cannot commute; and who think of their role in the language of “job” rather than “career.”
Then along came a little Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related virus called COVID-19 that changed everything.
Suddenly, even the most ambitious among us were wonder-struck with visions of succeeding in their challenging careers from the comfort of their own home offices or dining tables. If we could make it work for a year, couldn’t we make it work forever? And why pay sky-high real-estate and property taxes in a congested metropolitan area when you could really spread out between the land and the sky in Montana? (There are 2.6 million head of beef cattle in Montana…and just over a million people. Just saying.) Surveys indicate that between 63% and 98% of workers surveyed would prefer a more flexible or fully remote model to returning full-time to the office.
No one knows with any real certainty how this discontinuity is going to net out for employees who are able to work from home. Some employers (most notably and publicly Big Tech) are opting for full-time remote work options, while others (most notably Big Banks) are reeling their employees back to the office. The final outcome will probably be very different across employers and may emerge as a new short-term axis of competitive advantage in the talent market. In this tight labor market, employees who are so inclined can shop among prospective employers for the most liberal work-from-home policies. And 2021 surveys from McKinsey, Prudential, FlexJobs, and others indicate that between 30% and 42% of employees might give their employer the boot if they’re forced back to the office.
The next ten years of workplace evolution will be a path-dependent dialectic between worker desires and employee needs. A potent cocktail of a public health-induced economic coma, massive economic stimulus payments to individuals, and severe worker shortages in certain sectors have for now given workers the upper hand, as evidenced by the brisk rise in wages after decades of stagnation and stubbornly high job openings. But the current imbalance between labor supply and demand will likely equilibrate in the next 18 months.
Over the longer term, we are in uncharted territory as to the ultimate effects on company culture and company competitive success – hence the sustainability of work-from-home practices. A Gen-Xer who got her first computer in the late 80s – a Mac Plus with an astounding 20 MGBs of hard-drive storage! – I tend to default to the non-digital world. But my students, who are mostly digital natives, have a different philosophy and orientation to the possibilities of remote work and remote community creation. Several years from now, we’ll have irrefutable evidence about the evolution of remote-work practices – and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that new technologies like virtual reality may change the world of work as we know it.
However, we do have some glimmers of insight emerging about how employees behaved during Covid and feel about remote work from a wave of recent empirical studies.
The data around worker productivity in the pandemic work-from-home era is ambiguous. Anglo-American workers tended to report elevated levels of productivity. For instance, a January UK study found that 89% of employees rated their productivity as high or higher than pre-pandemic levels. However, studies from other countries like Japan and Austria had a larger percentage of workers reporting decreased productivity. More uniform across countries was a reported increase in quality of life by respondents, often attributed to time reclaimed from commuting.
And how did workers deploy that newfound free time? Nine out of ten respondents in the FlexJobs survey self-report pursuing some type of professional development or new skill attainment during the pandemic:
- Online professional development (51%)
- New professional skills (44%)
- Studied for or earned a new degree (7%)
- Attended virtual professional development events (41%)
- Studied for or earned a new certification (28%)
- Engaged in volunteer work, internships, projects, or side jobs (22%)
If we’re being optimistic, we could assume that these employees are upskilling to be more valued by and valuable to their current employers, but I think it’s more prudent to assume that they’re upskilling and networking to look for new employment opportunities. Over half of all employees in the United States report that they’re looking to change jobs in the next year! Or in the worst case, they may be negotiating secret second jobs at the same time they’re supposedly working full-time for you, as an August Wall Street Journal article documents.
And I think it’s no surprise that employees would so aggressively pursue new professional development pursuits at the time they feel the greatest disconnect from their current workplaces. The counter-balance to the overwhelming desire expressed for more flexible work options are the palpable sentiments of loss and loneliness embedded in some of these same surveys. The UK survey concludes that
“Many miss the workplace as a source of social interaction – those opportunities to contribute new ideas, learn from others and feel connected to the organisation. Digital communication has not been an adequate substitute for these interactions that enrich working life.”
These sentiments are not equally distributed across workplace demographics. A PWC survey published in January 2021 documented that workers with less than five years of experience with the company felt the most dissatisfaction with remote work and wanted to return to the office more frequently. They reported being less productive remotely and valuing more in-person time with managers and company trainings than their colleagues with more years with the company. The FlexJobs survey found that one of the most common concerns employees expressed about remote work was that their future career path would be negatively affected by not being physically present in the office.
We all recognize that where work is done post-pandemic is going to differ materially from pre-Covid times, given the overwhelming desire for greater flexibility expressed by workers. Employers that accommodate this desire while striving to preserve the best aspects of workplace culture – and to enable the career aspirations of their top talent – will be better positioned for long-term competitive success. I believe the most effective organizations will implement models of “structured flexibility,” in which employers are intentional about convening their communities of workers in person on designated days of the week or hours of the day. Enabling workers to be remote the other day(s) of the week should cause employees to value those in-person experiences even more ardently and to invest their all in collaborative work and community strengthening on those days they are in the building.
On the other hand, employers who stampede to acquiesce without qualification to at-will flexible work options may inadvertently be helping to mold a more disaffected, less committed cadre of workers who value quality of life higher than professional achievement. I am all for robust labor markets in which employers must meet the compensation and benefit demands of top talent. However, if the collective long-term effect will be to produce poorer company cultures with diluted employee engagement, less compelling career-path narratives, and greater emotional ease of exit, we are going to increase churn and costs at a macro level while benefiting no one except workers – and that only with respect to compensation and convenience.
There’s no judgement here: only you can make the determination of what’s most valuable to you in your life. The most common reason that workers cited for not wanting to go back to the office after the headache of commuting was not having to deal with organizational politics. Shunning the “politics” of the office is really a rejection of the human-centered nature of organizations. Organizations are not meritocracies, and decisions about worker performance and advancement are made by people, not processes. If you acknowledge that fact and still want to disengage from organizational “politics” in favor of your individual contributions delivered fully remote, that is your prerogative. I would wager, however, that if your individual workstream-oriented job can be done entirely offsite with minimal management oversight, it is also at the greatest risk of outsourcing and automation.
Until we have greater clarity around the future of hybrid work, my counsel to those career aspirants just entering the workforce in this unsettled time of maybe-I-do or maybe-I-don’t work-from-home cohort is to Get Thee to The Office (or whatever shared flexible workspace your employer has procured). Once secure in your career trajectory, with a handful of strong and powerful advocates in your corner, you can play the work-from-home card more frequently. But for now, it is going to be much, much more onerous to successfully cultivate advocates through remote channels. Phone- and video-based conversations simply do not permit the same richness of human interaction, which leads to greater empathy and intimacy, which leads to much stronger relationships. Life is dynamic and interdependent: your decision to work from home will put you at a disadvantage to someone who chooses to work in person, assuming management is also doing so.
Recently, the Managing Partner of a Top 10 law firm described to me two very different interaction patterns with two young associates in his firm. One associate was back in the office every day, hustling to interact with partners she wanted to work with and recruit as advocates. Another chose to work from home. While the current account balance of billable hours may not be meaningfully different today, he predicts that in two years the more engaged and proactive associate will have outpaced the other by three additional years in career advancement towards election.
Leaders may have the best of intentions in trying to treat all their employees equitably, but I believe that remote relationship-building will invariably be upstaged by the in-person experience. It’s like the difference between live-streaming a concert versus attending in person. Live-streaming was the best we could muster during Covid, but let’s face it: it was just awful. The highest number of ticket sales for a live-streamed concert for a 4800-seat performance venue I sit on the Board of was…380. Enough said.
To wrap up: my strong recommendation is to get yourself back into the workspace where you can be most effective in identifying, attracting, and cultivating powerful advocates who can turbo-charge your odds of ultimate career success. Avail yourself of every opportunity for in-person interaction, because chances others will be doing so even if you’re not.
(https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/flexjobs-survey-finds-employees-want-remote-work-post-pandemic/) March/April 2021 of 2,181 FT workers
https://news.prudential.com/increasingly-workers-expect-pandemic-workplace-adaptations-to-stick.htm Survey of 2,000 FT American workers conducted March 2021. Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey.
https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html PWC Survey of 133 Executives and 1200 FT employees in 3 sectors (FS, CP, and Tech/Media/Telecom) in Nov/Dec 2020
https://www.wsj.com/articles/these-people-who-work-from-home-have-a-secret-they-have-two-jobs-11628866529?mod=hp_lead_pos8 August 13, 2021 WSJ article on employees with two full-time jobs
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f5654b537cea057c500f59e/t/60143f05a2117e3eec3c3243/1611939604505/Wal+Bulletin+1.pdf Work After Lockdown, University of Southampton, January 2021. 1,035 survey respondents and 38 interviews with managers from 2 sectors: Professional, Scientific & Technical (PST) and Public Administration & Defence (PAD)
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00420-021-01692-0 “Working from Home, Quality of Life, and Perceive Productivity during the first 50-day Covid-19 Mitigation Measures in Austria” Survey of 1010 Austrian workers
Morikawa, M. (2020), COVID-19, teleworking, and productivity, VoxEU.org, https://voxeu.org/article/covid-19-teleworking-and-productivity