Why employers are struggling with their return to office plans

While employers and employees are speeding toward a post-pandemic “new normal,” what each group hopes that looks like may be quite different.

According to a new study from employment and labor law firm Littler, employers report several concerns in the transition to a post-pandemic future, but at the top of the list? Addressing differences in their plans and their employees’ preferences about where they will work.

The Littler Annual Employer Survey, 2021 found that just 4% of employers surveyed believe most of their employees who can work remotely would like to return to full-time in-person work; 71% believe most would prefer a hybrid model (i.e., a mix of remote and in-person work). Yet, 28% of those employers plan to have most employees return full time and in person, with 55% planning to offer a hybrid model.

The Littler report bolsters earlier conflicting views in surveys about how the American workplace will change in the months ahead. For example, a survey from early 2021 of 1,000 full-time American workers at companies with 501-50,000 employees found that 70% report that their experiences working from home have been better and more productive than they expected. Yet, in another report also from the beginning of 2021, PwC found three-quarters of executives anticipated that at least half their employees would be back in the office by July.

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According to the first survey, from Nintex, which supports employer digital transformation efforts, workers cited remote work benefits, including more family time, no commute, fewer interruptions and improved work/life balance, as the rationale for wanting long-term remote work opportunities.

Related: Going hybrid? 3 ways to avoid employee burnout

According to Devjani Mishra, a leader of Littler’s COVID-19 Task Force and Return-to-Work Team, the disconnect may be attributed to the unique set of challenges associated with hybrid working models for employers: from scheduling obstacles and physical office changes to ensuring employees working from home don’t feel left out or passed over for opportunities. That idea tracks with the 73% of employers who expressed concern about workforce management issues that come with employees split between in-person and remote work.

Devjani Mishra of Littler

“As companies plan their return to the office, HR professionals have an important role to play in advising employers on attracting and retaining talent in today’s tight job market,” Mishra says. She adds that the pandemic has removed a lot of the stigma around asking for flexibility and remote work options–both for existing employees and for job applicants raising these requests during the interview process.

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Mishra explains that addressing requests for flexibility raises a host of legal and practical considerations, including how to accommodate those who are concerned about coming to the office. Employers also must acknowledge that many do not have reliable access to childcare or transportation and must account for the cost of continuing COVID-19-related safety measures.

“Our survey data shows that many employers–including those that may never have considered hybrid or fully remote work prior to 2020–are looking at these models and considering how to incorporate them into their recruitment and retention strategies,” she says.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].