Author: Greg Hershberger
It’s clear that we are now in the midst of a significant restructuring of the way that office workers perform their jobs—as opposed to those who work on factory floors, construction sites, and other places unfit for remote work.
We know what the office worker is transitioning out of: work that was previously accomplished almost entirely in offices accessible by employees. And we know what caused the transition: the pandemic that shut down many offices to staff and had a major impact on nearly all professionals, psychologically and in other ways. But what’s less clear is what we are transitioning to.
Are the old ways of working gone? What is the optimal pattern for office work today? Unfortunately, it’s still taking shape through what we like to call the Great Restructuring.
To construct the ideal office work experience and determine what adjustments employers should make, we must begin with an understanding of workers’ experiences, reactions, and learned lessons during the pandemic. Greenwald Research conducted a survey in January 2022 of 1,206 people ages 25 to 74 who worked in 2021, made employment changes in 2021, or planned to make employment changes in 2022. What the survey found can help employers evolve and move toward the best possible resolution at the end of this rocky Great Restructuring period.
The Reason Why There’s No Going Back
The magnitude of the pandemic’s impact on work is unmistakable, and its duration is an important key to understanding why office work has changed dramatically. There is a well-known rule in psychology that states it takes 21 days to establish a routine and 90 days to turn the routine into a habit. The pandemic shook up work patterns for more than two years. Its influence has been ingrained, and there is no going back. Professionals now have very different needs and expectations of their employment environments and experiences.
Although most crises have only negative implications, the COVID-19 pandemic had both positive and negative effects on the workplace that created unusual, complex patterns difficult to analyze. In fact, Greenwald’s survey found several conflicting scenarios among participants.
About three in ten workers surveyed experienced an increase in satisfaction with their job, workplace culture, and work-life balance in 2021. A third felt a decrease in satisfaction with their social life and a decline in their mental and physical health.
Even more puzzling is COVID’s financial impact. About 25% of respondents said their ability to pay bills and save for unexpected expenses and retirement increased. Yet another 33% reported a decrease in their ability to pay bills and save for retirement, and 40% felt a decrease in their ability to save for unexpected expenses.
The pandemic produced a variety of unique experiences, and as gruesome as it is, has seen American employees and their employers adapt well and learn some valuable lessons along the way. Today, workers are not only seeking to avoid its negative effects but also retain or expand upon the benefits it’s brought over the years—most notably the chance to work from home.
Our research found that throughout the pandemic only a third of workers were required to perform their job on site or in the office, while a full quarter were permitted or expected to work completely remotely. Another fifth of those surveyed did not have specific conditions to meet from a regular employer because they were self-employed, worked in the gig economy, or had other reasons that enabled their freedom of location.
The ability to work remotely is considered highly desirable among US professionals. Almost half prefer full-time remote work, a third want the option to work remotely some of the time, and a fifth would rather always work on site.
But what’s interesting is that, in Greenwald’s discussions with businesses and in publications across industries, we find employers still see strong value in having staff work together in person. The disconnect between employees favoring remote work and employers insisting on the importance of in-office work makes navigating these differing opinions challenging, especially when competition among companies for talent is fierce.
The Loosened Tie of Employee Loyalty
One of the main reasons why employers want workers to return to the office, at least for a significant period of time, is because they believe that in-person work builds culture and earns more loyalty from employees. And there’s some truth in the assumption that less in-person contact loosens employee loyalty.
Our research revealed that in 2021, 34% of workers made some type of change in their job status—with the biggest being a new role or new employer—and 39% plan to make a change in 2022. The dynamics between 2021 work statuses and 2022 intentions are significantly different, and it’s vital that employers take note. The most frequently cited reason for making a job shift went from not feeling valued as a team member to being dissatisfied with compensation.
So what motivates employees to stay with their current employer? From a list of nearly twenty possible benefits, 7 in 10 survey respondents demanded a more flexible work schedule.
Those who voluntarily left their employer said that they considered pay, corporate culture, and remote work as important factors when considering a new place of employment. However, many prioritized a number of benefits associated with their physical, emotional, and financial wellness as well, including mental health and wellness benefits, health insurance, and vision insurance.
Wellness factors also became reasons to stay for those who remained with their employer, in addition to flexible schedules and the option to work remotely. With health incentive programs and financial wellness programs as motivators for employees who stuck around, all survey data suggests that wellness is an area employers shouldn’t overlook.
It’s not surprising that after a pandemic threatened the lives of Americans, wellness of all types has a higher priority and workers want employers’ help with meeting their needs.
The Key Qualities of Competitive Employers
We are in the midst of transitioning to a new relationship between employers and employees whose jobs enable them to work remotely. Many companies are thinking through their telework rules, some are changing workspaces, and others operating in big cities are setting up suburban satellite offices in areas closer to where their staff lives to cut down on commuting time.
But Greenwald’s survey underscores the importance of going beyond telecommuting policies to recognize that many employees seek benefits regarding flexibility not just in where they work, but when they work—giving them time during the workday to exercise, do chores, or perform their role in the evening after core business hours.
The research points to three key qualities that employers must develop to attract and retain their team at a time when there is strong competition for talent.
Workers want to be understood and treated by their employer on a highly individualized basis. The leading cause of employment changes in 2021 was feeling undervalued as an employee. Note also that the flexibility workers demand is in part to allow the structure of their work lives to fit their non-work lives, rather than the other way around. Personalization requires addressing work structures and providing remote options, customized communications, much more flexible benefit packages, and health and financial wellness programs. Perhaps most importantly, employees want their employers to care more about them as individuals and to find ways to express that concern by meeting their needs in ways that go beyond the boundaries of work.
Pre-pandemic work structures, such as working 9 to 5 in the office, were largely in place because of tradition. They were vestiges of a time when technology did not permit alternatives and were kept in place without much thought. Moving forward, it’s crucial that every work requirement is designed with intention—a purpose that is clear to team members. Some employers report that workers who come to the office are attending meetings with other in-office employees on Zoom. But requiring staff to come to the office and then work without personally interacting with their colleagues for more than an hour does not serve a purpose. There must be reasons for the new structure and they must be communicated to staff. The burden is on the employer to figure out how much time their employees must be in the office and what they should be doing during those times.
Until the pandemic, organizations were expected to be responsive, quickly addressing employee issues. Yet the research suggests simple responsiveness is no longer good enough. The ties of loyalty are weakened, and companies must make the effort to strengthen them. Employees are not only being poached by other local organizations, but by organizations across the country and around the world. Being preemptive means anticipating issues and addressing them before employees become concerned. It means having devices and procedures in place to sense concerns and solving them proactively. We are now in a new competition for talent and only the preemptive organization will wind up with the best.
Still curious about the state of the modern workplace? Learn more about our study on The Great Resignation, our annual Workplace Wellness Survey, or contact Greenwald to start your own research initiative.
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