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Return To Work Policies Remain Dicey: What Does It Mean For Workers?

In March 2020, when the pandemic swept the globe seemingly overnight and stay-at-home orders were implemented, we were all faced with real economic uncertainties. What would work from home entail? Would it reduce our productivity? Would we be constantly disrupted by our family members? How would we balance our work and personal lives? Would it impact our professional development? Would our employers actively pivot and support the demands of this new virtual workforce?

But in the face of these monumental changes and question marks, we adapted. As a result, productivity levels were found to either stay the same or increase throughout the pandemic. Not only that, but many have come to enjoy working from home as it has, amongst other things, allowed people to be more rested and save time and money on commuting.

Now that the world is slowly opening back up, employees are rooting for more flexibility in the workplace – but companies aren’t entirely sold on their return to work policies.

Is everyone in favour of returning to work?

At first, the wide adoption of non-traditional work models in 2020 might have been challenging, but it proved efficient for many.

As businesses are elaborating their return to work policy, employees have been vocal about the kind of work conditions they want going forward – and a good number of them want to keep working from home.

According to a recent Statistics Canada report, 80% of new teleworkers would like to keep working remotely, at least part-time. And based on a FlexJobs survey, only 2% of employees polled want to go back to the traditional, pre-pandemic way of work.

By in large, many businesses seem to be eager to have their employees back in the physical workplace. For example, a recent LinkedIn Corp. workforce confidence survey found that 57% of employers polled are looking to have their employees come back to the physical workplace within the next five to six months. 

But in light of employee’s widespread demand for remote work, many employers seem to be listening and are leaning toward a hybrid work model. In fact, upon the release of numerous return to work policies, many will maintain part-time or full-time remote work.

The constant uncertainty is affecting everyone’s mental health

Many businesses were nimble on their feet and made incredible efforts to communicate their return to work plans with their employees. However, others have yet to clarify their expectations, and the uncertainty weighs heavy for employees who have family obligations and concerns to make based on this. 

According to the LinkedIn Corp. survey, 33% of employees have no idea what their workplace’s return to work policy will look like, and 42% said they have yet to receive any information regarding whether they will have the option to work remotely or not. In relation, the LifeWorks mental-health index found that Canadians who are uncertain of their employer’s return to work plan reported the lowest mental-health scores. 

People need to know whether or not their presence will be required to work to plan accordingly and not knowing causes them a great deal of stress. Not only is uncertainty an influential factor in the decline of people’s mental health, but so is the adaptation period that may be forced onto them if presence in person is required.

“As flexibility and hybrid work environments become part of everyday life, yet another workplace transition is likely to cause increased mental strain among working Canadians,” said LifeWorks’ president and chief executive officer, Stephen Liptrap.

To reduce stress and improve employees’ overall mental health, clear communication on the employer’s end is a great place to start. While uncertainty reigns over knowledge of return to return policy, many also wonder if the new wave of flexible work measures in the workplace will be sustainable.

Will a flexible model work?

Flexible work locations and schedules were predominant during the pandemic and offered an advantage that more than half of Canadian employees are not ready to abandon. According to a survey by EY Canada, 54% of Canadians polled said they would leave their employer if work flexibility is not met post-pandemic.

While a certain level of flexibility in the workplace provides an opportunity to reimagine a better and improved work model, it comes with its own challenges. For one, it may increase feelings of isolation among people who work from home. It may also have an impact on managers who may be uncomfortable leading in a hybrid environment. 

Likewise, it may reduce access to promotions and career growth for those who stay home, especially in many companies’ wake of vaccination mandates. A study conducted by researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that promotion rates are higher for people who work in the office than those who work from home. According to the study’s lead author, Nicholas A Bloom, there are two main reasons for this: people working remotely don’t have the same chances to build interpersonal connections and managerial skills, or they lack the opportunity to show those skills. 

Furthermore, flexible work arrangements may also negatively impact businesses’ internal culture as contact between employees and management may be reduced. On that last point, however, CEO of Shopify, Tobi Lutke, disagrees: “A common misconception about company culture is that if you have a good one, you have to hold on to it. I believe this to be wrong. If you want to have a great culture, the trick is to evolve it with your environment. Take the best things with you from version to version.”

If appropriately managed, flexibility encompasses much potential, especially when it comes to productivity, performance, employee retention rates, and health.

How tech titans are adapting to the times

In May of last year, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke announced that the company was officially “digital by default.”

Before the pandemic hit, most of Shopify’s employees worked from an office and only a few worked remotely. But going forward, the majority of the company’s workforce will keep working from home, excluding a few exceptions such as new employees who will undergo their onboarding in person. Hence, despite this permanent move to the digital sphere, Shopify will keep some offices that they plan to redesign.

Among the various advantages of this change, Shopify believes it will allow the company to better connect with its customers, most of whom also work remotely. It will offer all employees the same work experience.

Salesforce have also been the latest to challenge the rush to return to work, with CEO Mark Benioff saying: “I’m going to get calls from CEOs who do not agree with what I’m about to say. So I’m just putting that out there ahead of time. But look, we’re not all coming back.” Salesforce, like many organizations, note that employees are working and succeeding at home, and as long as they’re delivering value and being productive, then threatening pay cuts or forcing employees to move back to the office isn’t the best route. Salesforce will let most of its employees work from home permanently after the coronavirus pandemic, for at least part of the week.

Amazon has even pushed forward with the flex model that employees can work remotely two days a week and three days in the office. Microsoft, Google and Facebook have all put together a new remote working plan that hopefully will set the precedent for other businesses to follow.   

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