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What Employees Have to Say About the Future of Remote Work - BCG

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has led to economic, health, and social devastation, it has also created an unprecedented opportunity: to run the world’s biggest-ever workplace experiment. This experience is yielding fascinating insights that have significant implications for the way we should organize work.


To assess employee sentiment on these changes - from the end of May through mid-June - BCG surveyed more than 12,000 professionals employed before and during COVID-19 in the US, Germany, and India, exploring their attitudes toward flexibility, productivity, well-being, career security, social connectivity, culture, learning and development, and the work tools they use.

A surprisingly large number of employees said they have been able to maintain or even improve their productivity during the pandemic.


The responses also reveal a significant shift in employee expectations for the future of work, with a keen appetite for flexible ways of working—and increased openness to this from managers.


But if employee productivity is possible at the height of the pandemic with little training or preparation, designing appropriate, sustainable working models is crucial to the success of work—both today and tomorrow.


THE PRODUCTIVITY QUESTION


The pandemic has forced employers to move around 40% of employees to remote working. Remarkably, instead of finding a collapse in the functioning of business, 75% of employees perceive that their productivity on their individual tasks has predominantly stayed the same or even improved, and 51% share this same opinion on collaborative tasks.


To understand why, we focused our analysis on collaborative tasks because collaborative work seems harder and appears to generate the most concern among employers—many of whom assume teams need to meet in person to collaborate.


We found four factors that correlate with employee perceptions of their productivity on collaborative tasks, whether working remotely or onsite: social connectivity, mental health, physical health, and workplace tools.


Social Connectivity. Employees who reported satisfaction with social connectivity with their colleagues are two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who are dissatisfied with their connections. Social connectivity is what enables us to be collaboratively productive and it will be critical for companies to recreate this connectivity regardless of where employees are located.


Mental Health. People who have experienced better mental health during the pandemic than before it are about two times more likely to maintain or improve their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who have experienced worse mental health. While awareness of the impact of mental health on work has been increasing, the pandemic—and the stresses and anxieties it has created—underscores how critical it is for employers to recognize the links between mental health and productivity.


Physical Health. For a long time, physical health has been recognized as a driver of productivity, reducing absenteeism and creating a more focused, higher-performing workforce. Our findings provide compelling evidence of this: employees who have experienced better physical health during the pandemic than before it are about twice as likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks as those with worse physical health. This highlights the importance of building time for sleep, exercise, and nutrition into the new work routines.


Workplace Tools. When we asked respondents about their satisfaction with tools such as videoconferencing, virtual white boards, and project management software, we found another powerful driver of productivity: employees who are satisfied with their tools are about twice as likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks as those not satisfied with their tools.


A NEW WORLD OF WORK

Companies expect about 40% of their employees to follow a remote-working model in the future. It is encouraging, therefore, that managers appear receptive to flexible models. In our survey, we were struck to find that over 70% of managers said they are more open to flexible models for their teams than they were before the pandemic.


WHAT THIS MEANS FOR EMPLOYERS

The future of work will be increasingly hybrid. And this presents both challenges and opportunities: to reimagine the entire employee experience and to create conditions that allow employees to thrive in the workplace of the future—one that will be far less office centric. This means developing new hybrid working models that enable employees to move seamlessly between onsite and remote work, as well as thinking about the appropriate physical space—both size and shape—for the hybrid office.


Some challenges are more demanding than others.


The good news is that companies have already been investing heavily in the tools needed to work remotely. In our Workplace of the Future survey, 87% of employers said they anticipate prioritizing tech and digital infrastructure investments that support sustained remote work.

When it comes to promoting good employee health, companies need to focus on both physical health and mental well-being. While employees who are no longer commuting have more time to exercise, it is easy for them to be sedentary when working remotely. Meanwhile, with 29% of respondents telling us they have experienced worse overall mental health during COVID-19, it is imperative for employers to create awareness and develop tools and benefits that support employees’ needs. Many companies are experimenting with new approaches, as P&G Indian Subcontinent is doing by inviting employees to webinars with emotional well-being experts, according to a recent report from the Economic Times of India.


Perhaps most challenging, but with the highest payback, will be figuring out how to maximize the social connectivity that takes place in the office. When employees are working remotely, it is hard to replicate the spontaneity of the “water cooler moment” or the camaraderie created by an impromptu lunch, a hallway conversation, or even a fire drill. But even those can be recreated with impromptu calls, whether by phone or FaceTime. And that’s important, not just for employees at home but for those onsite, where social-distancing practices and the fact that many colleagues are accessible only via video will hamper the kind of social connectivity that took place before the pandemic.


It is too soon to provide all the answers. But employers should ask themselves a number of key questions as they work to design customized solutions. In the following sections, we present some of these questions, along with examples of solutions that could spark ideas.


Social Connectivity. Recreating social connectivity in virtual and hybrid settings is tough but essential. Some key questions to consider:

  • How do you foster a culture in which leaders see it as their responsibility to design and execute social-connectivity strategies and practices for their teams?

  • When employees work remotely, how do you replicate the ad hoc, serendipitous encounters with colleagues who work on the same team or were once down the hallway?

  • How do you build social capital with new employees who are fully remote?

  • How do you maintain team cohesion when some people are working remotely while others are onsite?

  • How do you create deep social connectivity in a distanced world where everyone wears a mask, which hides many telling facial expressions?

Mental Health. While companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of this issue, managing employee mental-health challenges—both recognizing problems and addressing them—has never been easy for companies. And when employees are working remotely, it adds to the challenges. Some key questions to consider:

  • What steps should you take to help employees manage the burdens of working remotely, such as the blurring of work-life boundaries and the cognitive overload from being digitally engaged all day?

  • What systems and benefits do you need to put in place in order to support employees who are experiencing mental-health difficulties?

Physical Health. A productive workforce is a healthy workforce. This means promoting positive healthy behaviors in the remote and hybrid workplace. Some key questions to consider:

  • Without being able to provide access to a corporate gym, what other benefits, incentives, and structures might you put in place to encourage physical well-being?

  • How do you create team-level work-life balance?

Workplace Tools. Given the ubiquity of digital technology in the traditional workplace, the virtual or hybrid version needs to replicate this. Employers must use these tools to make it easy for employees not only to carry out their daily tasks but also to collaborate with their teams and other members of the organization—wherever they are located. Some key questions to consider:

  • What digital tools do employees need in a non-office-centric workplace—particularly to support collaborative tasks?

  • What role does the company play in either providing the physical tools and equipment needed to work from home, such as external monitors and ergonomic chairs, or compensating employees so that they can purchase them?

  • When part of the team is in the office and part of it is at home, how do you develop norms to ensure that everyone feels included?

  • For those working at home, how do you create the sense of a workplace?


When teams are split between home and office, remote members often feel at a disadvantage during meetings vis-à-vis those who are physically together. To counter this concern and promote equal participation in meetings, one option is to have all participants dial in to the call individually, even if they are onsite.


For each new challenge that arises in the remote and hybrid work world, employers will need to determine the specific tools and techniques that fit into their corporate culture and work patterns. It will be important to understand employee productivity as the workplace continues to evolve. This evolution will increase the need for employers to measure employee productivity in conjunction with employee perceptions. But the key questions and examples featured here provide a starting point for consideration so that companies can enhance productivity whenever and wherever work is happening.


WINNERS IN THE NEW REALITY

Investments in physical infrastructure, support (such as daycare), and digital technologies will of course be essential. But to benefit fully from the changes, organizations need to focus on helping leaders, managers, and employees to promote physical and mental well-being and—most important—virtual social connections. They also need to make transitions between onsite and remote work as smooth as possible, giving employees a cohesive experience that feels designed, not random, and allows them to perform at their best whether onsite or working remotely.


This crisis has presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the workplace. Things that might once have seemed impossible have proved surprisingly workable. With collaborative productivity essential to innovation, the changes will enable companies to become more competitive. And given employee desires for flexibility, the changes will also allow companies to recruit and retain the best talent. Moreover, focusing on well-being and social connectivity will serve another important purpose: helping employees to recover faster from what, for so many people, has been a traumatic, painful, and stressful period. And that is not only good for business—it is good for people.


To read the entire article from BCG please click here.

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