The post-vaccine workplace is taking shape, and for many it’s going to be a hybrid model, allowing more remote work but with clear expectations that some days a week will be in the office.
Workforce experts are bracing for a whole new set of post-pandemic upheavals, in some instances more transformative than the unplanned move to working from home last March, with some making efforts to avoid pre-pandemic remote-work mistakes.
“In a lot of ways it’s going to be more disruptive than when we went all remote,” said Brian Kropp, vice president of research at Gartner.
New videoconferencing technology will be added to help in-person and remote workers feel as if they’re on a level playing field. Managers will undergo extensive training to fight against the instinct to give workers in the office preferential treatment. Logistics will be coordinated to ensure those who go into the office don’t get there and find the building empty, perhaps by setting core hours or days for on-site work.
A growing number of major employers of white-collar workers have announced return-to-work plans in recent weeks, outlining a mix of in-person and virtual work that is being described as permanent, or a “new normal.”
Citigroup chief executive Jane Fraser said in a March memo that the majority of workers would be designated as hybrid, with an expectation that they would work at least three days in the office. Ford said last month that 30,000 of its North American office workers would be allowed to work under a flexible hybrid model in which they are on-site for certain meetings or projects and stay home for independent work.
The investment firm TIAA said the vast majority of its workers would be hybrid, while Target announced that it would be ending the lease at one of its downtown Minneapolis headquarters buildings after telling employees in February that most office workers would follow a hybrid approach.
The announcements, while still hazy on details, mark an inflection point in companies’ efforts to return to the office.
“The number one question I’m getting from companies is how do we do hybrid workforce planning,” said Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the forthcoming book “Remote Work Revolution.” “They have to do their planning on what that post-pandemic future will look like,” she said. “It’s the hope, it’s the optimism, based on the fact that many people have been vaccinated.”
During the first year of the pandemic, a host of tech companies, such as Twitter, announced they would let employees go remote on a permanent basis, prompting predictions of a virtual future, abandoned commercial real estate and a geographic free-for-all that would let staffers work from anywhere.
Google called in December for at least three “collaboration days” a week in the office and two days out, while Microsoft said last fall that working remotely up to half the time would be considered standard. (Microsoft began allowing workers back to its campus March 29, but Redmond employees are still encouraged to work remotely, and the company has capped the number of people allowed in shared spaces at any one time.)
Yet the more recent announcements from nontech companies give the clearest indication yet that the hybrid model is here to stay, workforce experts say.
“When these other companies are making this move, who have historically been more conservative or have much less of a startup mentality — when those companies are making a move, they’re a bellwether,” Kropp said. “It shows this is becoming more common.”
Companies say they’re responding to employee expectations. In January, 44% of U.S. workers working remotely surveyed by Gallup said they prefer to work from home once restrictions are lifted, while 39% said they want to return to the office.
Lockheed Martin, which estimates that between 40% and 45% of its workforce would be “multidimensional” — its term for hybrid — has put its managers through roughly 20 hours of training, some of which focused on having a “growth mindset,” a term coined by researcher Carol Dweck that refers to someone’s skills and abilities having the potential to change and grow.
“This is a new world, and you have to accept it as such,” said Greg Karol, Lockheed Martin’s chief human resources officer. “We were a company with only 3% full-time telecommuters a year ago. You move to this new phase, I don’t expect them to be experts.”
Sara Wechter, Citigroup’s global head of human resources, said the company plans to start inviting employees in North America back to the office in July and hopes about 50% can return to the office part time in September. It designated each job in the company as “resident,” “remote” or “hybrid,” with the vast majority falling into the last category.
“I cannot picture Citi ever saying we’re going fully remote,” Wechter said. Yet whereas in the past the default was that an employee would work on-site, in the future the default will be hybrid, she said. Fraser’s memo was an effort to be clear that “we’re better together,” Wechter said. “At the end of the day we’ve proven we can work in a hybrid situation. We can work from home. There’s got to be the balance.”
The law firm Allen & Overy said recently that it plans to eventually bring its lawyers back in the office about 60% of the time but that it won’t measure hybrid schedules on a weekly basis. “Our expectation is you will organize your working life so that 60% of that working time over a year is spent in the office,” said Tim House, the firm’s U.S. senior partner.
Decisions will be left up to individual partners on how to bring people in, and teams might work several weeks at a time in the office while finishing a project and then spend a couple weeks out of it. But he expects the change to be permanent. “It will be a paradigm shift and one that will endure,” he said, with the firm going from one that was “permissive” of flexible work in certain arrangements “to one that is now communicating that the appropriate balance is 60% in the office.”
At TIAA, roughly 85% of its workforce is expected to work between two and four days in the office. That’s a much better model, said TIAA Chief People Officer Sean Woodroffe, than one the firm had in the past, when a large percentage of people were fully remote. By 2018, roughly 30% to 40% of TIAA’s employees were working from home full time, a level considered high for the financial services industry at the time and one it realized wasn’t working, hurting collaboration. Before the pandemic, it was down to just 15% remote in 2019, with the firm calling off-site workers back in.
When too many workers are remote, “you run into issues that people that are in the office have face time, they have opportunities, they’re interacting with employees a little bit differently than the employees that are working remotely,” Woodroffe said. When most employees have some time on-site and some working from home, it should help with those concerns, he said. “What we’re moving to is something that’s completely different.”