While the world recovers from the pandemic, the challenges that today’s leaders face regarding whether employees return to their office or work remotely, are multi-faceted. If they do return – is it every day and for everyone? COVID has already had an unprecedented impact on how most people work and now that the spread of the virus has changed, leaders continue to face unexpected – and often novel – challenges. Dr. Joseph Gier outlines the keys to developing and preparing leaders to succeed in this ever-changing and unpredictable environment. The debate over whether or not to return to the office is far from settled — and yet, the push to get employees back to the office is becoming more aggressive. Goldman Sachs wants employees in the office five days a week. Google is factoring each employee’s in-office attendance into their performance reviews.
Nearly 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of next year, and many have already brought employees back – at least for several days per week. In an August 2023 report from Resume Builder, 30% of 1,000 company leaders surveyed said that once their return-to-office policies were established, they would threaten to fire employees who didn’t comply with in-office requirements.
What’s Driving the Push to End Remote Work?
According to Korn Ferry’s senior client partner Dan Kaplan, “It’s easier for executives to hold on to the old notion that people are really working if they can see them down the hall. It seems as if it’s almost too hard for some leaders to comprehend a world where that option doesn’t exist, or to consider a radical new approach.”
Companies are reluctant to give up their 9-to-5 in-person schedules for “more emotional than intellectual reasons,” says Kaplan, who noted that executives “never intended for the world to change this dramatically and the office to just go away.” In addition, there’s the popular argument that people are less connected to their company and their peers without the office, which could then negatively impact employee engagement and retention.
Although that notion appears to be false, by the end of 2023, more CEOs have openly acknowledged their disdain for the remote model, arguing that productivity, collaboration, and employee engagement all suffer without the office.
In 2022, while COVID was still a major impact, a Korn Ferry survey of 15,000 global executives reported that two-thirds agreed that corporate culture accounts for more than 30% of their company’s market value. Many of these leaders believed that a strong culture can only be established and maintained “if everyone is — at least some of the time — occupying the same workplace.”
However, the CEOs also justify their stance with the belief that workers are more productive in the office. Amazon’s Andy Jassy, for example, told employees that “it’s easier to learn, model, practice and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by colleagues.”
Brian Elliott, an executive advisor on flexibility and the founder of the research consortium Future Forum, agreed, noting, “The individual free-for-all work policy doesn’t work. There really is some benefit to getting people together on a regular basis to drive relationship-building, mentorship, and collaboration.” This notion was also outlined in Resume Builder, which noted that the “vast majority” of business leaders say they have seen an improvement in revenue, productivity, and employee retention since returning to the office. Based on these beliefs, at this time, only 2% of business leaders said their company never plans to require employees to work in person.
Yet research has failed to draw definitive conclusions about remote workers’ productivity. In the U.S., employee productivity rose by 4.4% in 2020 and 2.2% in 2021 before falling in 2022. In 2023, however, labor productivity rose 3.7% during the second quarter and is up 1.3% compared to this time last year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023).
Whether working from home or meeting in a different environment, many employees experienced a different “work setting” during the height of COVID-19. As organizations move forward, Harvard Business notes, many companies have begun instituting a “hybrid” approach to work. Although these hybrid approaches vary between companies, they generally include the option of allowing employees to work remotely for at least two days per week. However, many employees have continued to work remotely for 100%, or nearly 100%, of the time.
Leading the Hybrid Work Strategy
Harvard Business has found that the hurdle companies are now facing is not simply balancing work and life but maintaining that balance while keeping pace with the evolving learning opportunities, which are vital to remaining proficient on the job.
Humanizing Leadership in the Digital Age
Although the pandemic brought more “empathic” changes into most organizations, many leaders are still struggling with the associated challenges that continue to impact the employees in their company. In a 2022 survey by Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, 78% of senior leaders felt strongly that demonstrating empathy is highly important in their role, but only 47% said that their organization’s culture emphasizes it. More importantly, this survey also showed that many senior leaders were not prepared to demonstrate – and consistently lead – an empathic organization. Professional development of the competencies associated with empathy, along with efforts to improve listening, social, and emotional intelligence skills, have been identified as crucial for companies to flourish in this evolving environment. Developing these skills within leadership at all levels of the organization is essential for future success.
What does all of this mean for the leaders of today and tomorrow? According to Harvard’s experts, today’s leaders must be adept at leading through unexpected events. Leaders will need to increase their learning agility, and also strengthen their management capabilities. One thing is certain. The many unexpected challenges that all companies faced these past few years will continue to significantly impact how everyone operates now and in the future. The leaders who can best adapt will be the ones who will lead the most successful companies.
Joseph Gier, Ph.D. is Vice President – Consulting Services at E.A.S.I-Consult®, and is a licensed Psychologist. E.A.S.I-Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized organizations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. Utilizing scientific approaches, E.A.S.I.-Consult® provides superior results to Business – Driven by Science. Our specialties include leadership and leadership potential assessment, online employment assessment, customized skills assessment, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I.-Consult®, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.