Work's new normal takes shape and some companies will botch it

Companies that romanticize the seriously flawed old way of working are likely to have issues as the hybrid new normal emerges.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

The new normal for work is entering a trial-and-error period that may be productivity's greatest A/B test as enterprises muddle through finding that hybrid utopia.

While these plans for returning to the office are fluid, the biggest risk to companies is clear. That risk? Romanticizing the pre-pandemic view of work. Simply put, the old normal just wasn't that great. In fact, the old work format kind of sucked. 

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  • Hours a week were spent commuting.
  • Open floorplans were abysmal and anyone having to do work on deadline needed noise-canceling headphones. And oh, by the way, most folks were sitting just 2ft from someone else. And, oh yeah, I could tell you about everyone's fight with a partner, doctor appointment, and mortgage issue within a 20-ft radius.
  • Focus was a luxury.
  • Offices in big and expensive cities worked against diversity and inclusion efforts because you needed parental backing or a trust fund to even consider a move. Remote working will improve your diversity
  • And the office environment favored those extroverts who could network in person. Say what you want about Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or whatever but feedback has been democratized.

I'll leave out some of the middle school BS that would happen between co-workers. My life lesson for the day: Middle school never ends; it just ebbs and flows. Stop by any assisted living place and you'll get middle school flashbacks with 90-somethings.

My working theory is that going back to the office is going to rhyme with high school reunions. You'll want to see folks you haven't seen in a while and then get over it. We'll all run back to the office and then two weeks later realize that it wasn't all that and a bag of chips. 

Data from Qualtrics and Robert Half revealed that employees don't want to go back to the old way of working. Workers have discovered through the COVID-19 pandemic that going into the office daily had significant drawbacks such as commuting, lack of privacy, and numerous barriers keeping you from finding your productivity flow.

So far, companies are trying different approaches to reopening offices. Consider:

  1. Google expects some US workers to be able to return to the office this month with most employees returning in September. Google did say that, after Sept. 1, employees who want to work remotely for more than 14 additional days per year need to formally apply. The approach is a bit of a headscratcher considering Google pitches G Suite and Meet as a way to work and learn from anywhere.
  2. Amazon said on March 30 that it plans to "return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively."
  3. Microsoft said it may fully reopen offices on July 6 but is taking more of a hybrid approach. Microsoft also released research highlighting work has changed forever and that 61% of business leaders are thriving -- 23% higher than those workers without decision-making authority. Should Microsoft nail the hybrid work approach it'll have a great marketing spiel for Teams, Office 365, and cloud services.
  4. Salesforce has said that most employees around the globe will go into the office one to three days a week. That decision was based on employee feedback where about half of workers only wanted to go into the office a few times a month. Salesforce gets marketing and its approach will fare well for what it wants to do with Slack.

Let's roll the data

Qualtrics ran a global survey with 4,000 respondents in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. The respondents were employed throughout the pandemic. Thirty-five percent of respondents worked entirely remote during the pandemic and 46% worked remote at least some of the time.

Among the takeaways:

  • Managers said 55% of their direct reports have been more productive working remotely. And 29% said those direct reports were as productive as they were in the office.
  • 51% of employees believe they were more productive.
  • Employees at companies who have been proactive about announcing post-pandemic plans are 88% more likely to say their overall well-being has improved.
  • Flexible schedules and a lack of commuting time were the biggest productivity boosters, but control over workspace, focus, and more privacy was also big.

Qualtrics survey

  • Your workforce has moved away. For employees that moved away during the pandemic, 47% of them don't plan on coming back.
  • Hybrid wins out. Only 27% of workers want to go back to the office full time, but only 7% want to work from home full time. Overall, 73% of workers want to work remotely one or two days a week.
  • 70% of managers want a hybrid work arrangement compared to 59% of individual contributors.
  • 46% want work layouts to change to include quiet and private workspaces, more flexible meeting areas, and more space between desks.
  • Business travelers want to travel. 61% of workers want to return to their previous amount of travel or more and 18% want to travel less. Good luck getting your CFO to agree to those expenses when sales productivity improved in many cases without it.
  • A Robert Half study found that 49% of workers wanted a hybrid work arrangement. Many workers said they were concerned about relationships with coworkers and career advancement if they were completely remote. According to Robert Half, one in three workers would look for a new job if they were required to be in the office full time.

One thing is certain. There are going to be a few companies that get the new normal of work right and recruit more talent. Others are going to fail miserably.  

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