After more than a year of remote work, companies are tentatively starting to plan a return to work. However, “normal” work practices have changed and formalizing the future of work will take time and consideration. As Fortune 500 companies return to office, how are they responding to evolving employee needs and managing expectations across all levels of their organizations?
The pandemic has significantly changed the work landscape, making a return-to-work plan a challenge to create for many reasons:
- 83% of employers regard the transition to remote work a success.
- A quarter of U.S. employees are expected to continue to work remotely post-pandemic, at least part of the time.
- 87% of employees aren’t ready to give up the office, citing collaboration and building relationships as its core benefits.
- The majority of employees would like to be in the office at least one or two days of the working week.
Enterprise return to office planning efforts may offer a glimpse at the workplaces of the future, as giants like Apple, IBM, and Microsoft center flexibility, hybrid solutions, and employee well-being.
Establishing a flexible or hybrid workplace is becoming the obvious solution for companies and employees who would like to be in the office at least part of the time. So while Zoom meetings and the 30-second commute to your home workspace will likely remain part of your workweek, collaborating with colleagues in person and enjoying the perks of the office may make a welcome return.
Whether your company is planning a return to the office, a remote workforce, or a hybrid solution, how you manage the transition to your post-pandemic workplace is crucial. Considering that employees and executives have very different perceptions of how well their companies communicate, how you share your strategy across the business is just as important as rolling it out.
The key to establishing an effective return-to-work strategy, evident from reviewing the action plans of top Fortune 500 companies, is to create a clear roadmap, encourage employee participation, and effectively communicate the plan to the business ahead of time.
Enterprise return to office planning: What Fortune 500 companies are prioritizing
We did a deep dive into the return-to-work policies created by several global brands and gleaned practical guidelines for planning and disseminating a return-to-office plan for your business.
Need for flexibility in the workplace is critical – Dell
COVID-19 forced offices worldwide to close their doors, sending everyone other than essential services workers home. While it came as a shock for a number of companies, many others already had policies in place for remote management.
Dell’s flexible work program, “Connected Workplace,” has been a work-style option since 2009. Pre-pandemic, the company set themselves a target of having 50% of their workforce fully remote by 2013.
“Our Connected Workplace program is a strategic business initiative that allows employees to choose the work style that best fulfills their needs on the job and in life in a highly mobile, collaborative, and flexible work setting.”
— Dell, Work from Home Policy
Workforce flexibility has been a priority for many companies for a long time but defining the policies around working from home have been accelerated by the pandemic. Now that the remote work experiment has proven successful, many companies see no reason to abandon the flexible work model especially when the benefits to the employee and the business have been so positive.
|Benefits for the business:
|Benefits for the employee:
|Cash savings on real estate and office upkeep and perks.
|Improved work-life balance, flexibility, and mental health
|Improved employee satisfaction and retention.
|Less money spent on commuting, dining out, and work travel.
|Fewer unscheduled absences and workplace distractions, and increased productivity.
|Significantly reduced carbon footprint by not commuting every day.
Safety must remain the top priority – FIS
Planning a return to the office shouldn’t focus solely on the bottom line, cost-saving, downsizing, or figuring out whether employees want to be in-office or at home full time. Safety and employee well-being should be at the forefront of the return-to-work policies and communications.
Financial services company FIS has taken this approach in managing the return to their global offices. Pre-pandemic, just 9% of their global workforce of 57,000 worked from home, while 95% were remote by summer 2020.
Since then, FIS has acknowledged that many employees want a return to normalcy, and the company has put employee well-being first in their return-to-work plans:
- Safety: FIS is enforcing mandatory face masks at all their offices and investing in air filters in each location. Safety guidelines will remain in place until further review.
- Timing: The company will enact a return to the office in line with individual country guidelines while also taking precautions to minimize the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, or the office needing to close again.
- Phasing: FIS has established an internal group that determines four staffing levels and the level of restrictions needed for those employees in the office. The group provides clear information to employees about when they may return, how many of the team can return at any given time, and what level of restrictions will be relevant to them when in the office.
- Planning: Setting a return-to-work policy is one thing, but FIS also has clear plans on “re-exiting” the office should cases spike or there’s an internal outbreak. Having a plan for closing the office if needed should minimize employee stress and operational chaos.
It’s time to reset work boundaries – Citigroup
The pandemic has transformed our work lives, and for many of us, afforded us more time to spend on personal projects or with family. This isn’t the case for all employees; for some the lines between work and home life, personal and office, have become blurred.
With your workspace integrated into your home space, it can be more challenging to switch off and detach from work. The workdays can be elongated when there’s no commute, and meetings and work requests outside regular work hours can become the norm. It can also be harder for employers and managers to track if employees are working overtime.
It’s within this grey area that Citigroup has detailed its plan to “reset” work boundaries.
“I know from your feedback, and my own experience, the blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being. It's simply not sustainable.”
— Jane Fraser, CEO at Citigroup
In preparation for the next phase of flexible work, Citigroup announced several initiatives to counteract long workdays and employee burnout. The first initiative is “Zoom Free Fridays,” designed to reduce Zoom fatigue, provide employees with a meeting-free day to focus on the work they need to get done, and allow some breathing room after a busy work week.
They’re also focusing on healthy work boundaries, encouraging employees to limit emails, messages, and meetings outside regular working hours. Employees are encouraged to use their vacation days and enjoy a companywide day off each year called the “Citi Reset Day.”
This focus on employee well-being and the need to instill a healthier work-life balance starts from the top. If senior executives and managers support well-being and adopt healthier work-life practices, these benefits will trickle down to all employees.
We’re at a point where the structure of work is changing, so it’s the perfect time to reset boundaries and adopt healthier work expectations. If every employee understands their boundaries as we move into a new phase of work, well-being and balance should be intuitive for employees, whether in-office, remote, or hybrid.
Clear and concise communication is the standard – IBM
If you’re wondering how to communicate your return-to-work policy, you may want to take a page out of IBM’s playbook. This global brand has published a comprehensive Return to Work Playbook that communicates to all employees across the globe concrete considerations and plans for managing its future workplace.
Not only does IBM’s playbook provide an actionable plan for employees and establishes a clear policy, but it also gives transparency to employees. The guide contains:
- The context in which IBM is considering a return to office
- A phased approach to welcoming employees on-premises
- Safety protocols for employees in the office
- Detailed remote work policies for the future
Clear communications and plans based on forecasting and identifiable scenarios should be the standard for all companies. Waiting for general guidance and government decisions should be a contributing factor, but shouldn’t delay the establishment of return-to-work plans.
Having a fluid but actionable plan in advance allows employees to understand the risk of returning to the office, and better plan how they foresee the future of work, be it at home or in the office.
Expectations need to be managed – Apple
While trends suggest that adopting flexible work policies will be a popular solution, it’s clear that flexibility doesn’t work for all industries, businesses, and job roles.
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently announced that he expects most employees to return to the office. The company believes that being physically in touch is key to collaboration.
"Innovation isn't always a planned activity. It's bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that."
— Tim Cook, CEO at Apple
Suppose you can’t impose a one-size-fits-all plan for flexibility or have a strong case for encouraging employees to return to the office permanently. In that case, you need to manage these expectations.
For example, if you have job roles that require the individual to be on-premises, that should be clearly outlined and communicated, along with an expected return to office date. If other job roles within the organization can work remotely or hybrid indefinitely, consider different ways to encourage flexibility for these employees, such as flexible start times.
Communicating as early as possible your plans for a return to work and work flexibility will manage employee expectations and prepare for the next phase of their work lives.
The future of work is still being figured out – Microsoft
One of the key messages from each enterprise on the future of work is that it's still in flux. Every company will have to create and execute its plans and policies based on what will suit their own business, culture, and workforce.
In a recent blog post by Microsoft, Executive Vice President Kurt DelBene outlines that while they’re aiming for an evolved, hybrid, digital workplace, they’re still figuring out how this works in practice.
“Though we don’t know how far off a new normal is, we are adapting to a new way of working with an expanded understanding of flexibility. We know there are thousands of ways of working – in the last year, our employees have shown what is possible – and we believe that flexibility is essential to maintaining work-life balance.”
— Kurt DelBene, Executive VP at Microsoft
There’s no shame in admitting that your return-to-work plan won’t be perfect and that things will change. Once leaders are transparent and forthcoming with clear return-to-work objectives and procedures, employees and businesses will have the insight and space to determine the ideal work solution for their future.
Global enterprises plan future of work by responding to change
Enterprise return to office planning is complex, there's no doubt about it. No action plan for planning a return to the office will be the same, and no policy will be perfect for every business, industry, or employee. However, businesses that activate plans in plenty of time, communicate them effectively, listen to employee needs, manage their expectations, be transparent, and make safety and well-being top priority will fare better in the Next Normal than those that don’t.
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