Guest Post by Rich Branning, Executive Managing Director, JLL

Whichever way you look at it, hybrid work is here to stay. It’s time for all of us to embrace it as reality, and also as opportunity.

Clearly, work flexibility is an unprecedented opportunity to engage employees at an even deeper, more productive level. So, instead of asking why a percentage of your workforce wants to work from anywhere focus instead on answering these questions:  

  • How many employees will work remotely and how often?
  • How will I ensure I don’t have a gaping digital and cultural divide between employees who work at the office and those who work from home or remotely?
  • If I need workers in the office, how will I motivate them to come back and stay, at least part of the work week? 
  • How will management teams effectively manage those who work from home and remotely?
  • How many stakeholders will be involved in the hybrid and/or office discussion?

Pre-COVID, only around 6% of employees worked remotely and three quarters of the workforce had never worked anywhere but the office. Predictions vary, but many companies are estimating as much as 40% of their office workforce will want to work remotely at least part of the time, post-COVID. Yet there may be an age gap that comes into play in the post-COVID hybrid workplace. A March 2022 survey of graduating college seniors by LaSalle Network indicated just 11 percent wanted the opportunity to work remotely full time.

With such a diverse workplace, maintaining cohesion and culture can clearly be challenging. Yet, anything is possible.

I’ve touched on this in other posts, but I really believe that when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees today, the biggest weapons in a company’s armory are flexibility and the ability to deliver a curated employee experience. 

Workers are flexing their muscles

Flexibility is essentially what employees have been crying out for all along, isn’t it? The quality-of-life balance debate was already heating up prior to COVID, especially in tech. The debate went back and forth between a four-day work week, job-sharing, extended sabbaticals, or more flexible workday hours. Some companies signed on, others didn’t. Wake-up call: employees’ priorities are evolving even more rapidly than they were pre-pandemic, especially among millennials and Gen Xers.

This pursuit of flexibility isn’t temporary, and it’s valuable. So much so, a growing number of employees are willing to give up their existing jobs to attain it. In March, according to Labor Department statistics, a record 4.53 million left their jobs, the most to do so since November 2021. Many were women. Women were the majority of workers to leave the workforce during the pandemic and estimates suggest that while most men have since returned, there are more than a million female workers yet to return to the workplace. Facing skyrocketing health and housing costs, lack of affordable childcare, record gas prices and price inflation across the economy, a record number of workers have quit their jobs to look for something better. Inflation may have prompted some to do so for higher compensation packages, that’s true. But, my reading of the market suggests they are also ditching old jobs in favor of workplaces that offer, in their eyes, more flexibility.  

Not less work, just more control over it

Think about it: flexibility in work hours allows more workers to manage work-life balance. It doesn’t mean they work less – in fact, some may put in even longer hours – it just means that they have more control over when and where they work. It gives Dad the ability to take the kids to school and be there to pick them up when they are finished. It gives Mom the time to schedule a medical appointment when it makes sense for her, not her employer. It gives a family the option not to send kids to expensive childcare during the day for the entire work week or have someone home for a repairman.

Flexibility in work location offers the chance to save on commuting time and costs. Analysis of return to work data in 24 metro areas by the Wall Street Journal show that more workers returned to offices in cities like Austin and Minneapolis where average commute times are under half an hour than did so in longer commute markets, such as New York City. In addition to saving time, remote workers can rationalize their decisions by less wear and tear on a car. Fewer trips on public transit. In some cases – work from anywhere – it allows a worker to reduce housing costs by moving to a less expensive suburb or even a rural area. It can even allow them to buy a house.

Only tools for the job

Want to keep employees happy whether they work at the office or remotely? Then make sure you give them the tools in an environment where they can do their job efficiently. Employees are bombarded by technology and expected to be “on” almost 24/7, either by checking, if not responding to, emails or texts or answering messages on Slack. It’s the tradeoff: availability off hours and on weekends in order to have flexibility during the “traditional” work week. In order to achieve that, employees have to be efficient with their time and yours.

Tuning out “the noise” by curating and cutting down on content – emails, texts, messages – not only enables employees to be more productive, but it also makes them (pardon the pun!) more content. A new generation of tools like ClearSpace, which helps users free themselves from phone dependence, are valuable weapons in the constant battle to simplify and retrieve work-life balance.

In fact, funneling only relevant content is probably the number one factor that workers inside and outside the office can agree on – a bridge to the digital divide – and savvy companies are rightly investing resources in delivering a universal experience across the organization. Minimizing email traffic through the use of Slack or other messaging channels and streamlining workflow using any one of a number of productivity software tools is one way of re-focusing productivity.

Another way to bridge the gap: helping your employees make the remote experience as fulfilling as the experience they have at the office. One way to do this: assist them in setting up their workspaces for maximum productivity. There are plenty of resources to help with this, including JLL’s recent research and advisory on equipping the workplace.

Some companies are even providing stipends for office supplies, allowing Work-From-Home (WFH) employees to invest in a desk and ergonomic chair, better lighting, faster broadband. Stipends range from one-time payments ranging from $250 to $1000 to monthly stipends of a few hundred dollars. These costs are minimal compared to the cost of re-staffing.

Help your employees mentally too by quashing any perception of a remote ‘stigma’. One of the biggest fears among Work-from-homers is FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. Missing out on promotions; missing out on the best assignments; missing out on camaraderie and social interaction. So, align your HR policies and company culture to soften those fears.

The office carrot

Of course, none of this means you have to position the office as a less attractive option. Far from it. Dangle that carrot! Convince employees they want to be in the office, don’t penalize them for being away from it. Remember, technology enhances the in-person experience, but it will never replace the people experience.

One carrot: providing a place to hang out without distractions and competing voices. We were already bringing huddle rooms and quiet space into the workplace before COVID. We were like students, attending lectures, taking advantage of office hours then going off to do independent study.  But the experience we’ve all gone through has heightened that desire for smaller, more intimate meetings, individual space, collaborative hangouts, even walls. Again, its flexibility. Flexibility in office design so that rooms can be moved, widened, closed off according to the need, and flexibility for the employee who doesn’t have to sit in the same 9’ by 5’ cubicle day in, day out.

It’s also variety. No one wants to work in exactly the same environment, every single day. It’s like reading two or three books at a time. Yes, sometimes you read a book that you can’t put down and you zip through it in a couple of sittings. (You probably have work projects like that too.) But most of the time, you have two or three books on the go, and pick each up depending on what mood you are in. The same principle goes for workspace. Sometimes you feel like a different view, a quieter spot, more social interaction. Being able to move between these environments seamlessly is the ultimate flexibility.

Flexibility is, indeed, the key. I heard a story the other day of a candidate who negotiated a fully remote position even though they really planned to work in the office two to three days a week. She built that flexibility into the position as part of the condition of accepting the offer. The company probably would have happily accepted a two-day WFH schedule, but the fact is, they accepted a fully remote position. No expectations of her coming into the office at all. But the candidate gave herself the flexibility to come into the office as, and when, she wants.

That’s the new way smart, leading enterprises with physical locations will successfully approach the future of work. No FOMO, just FF: full flexibility, in work and life.

Rich Branning is Executive Managing Director at JLL