As cities and counties reopen and local populations get vaccinated, there’s a new, sudden reckoning for employers that want to keep their top talent – the workers who have stuck with them may not be quite the same people last seen, pre-pandemic, around the office water cooler. And they may not even want to return to that water cooler day after day. The pandemic caused an overnight shift to remote work that also allowed many to reevaluate their work-life balance, productivity gains and career goals. It’s since turned the job market into one that favors the jobseekers, many of whom now crave much more flexibility.

In a survey of 2,000 American adults with full-time jobs, Prudential found 87% who worked remotely during the pandemic want to stay remote at least one day a week. Among all workers, 68% said they wanted a hybrid arrangement. Bosses have fewer and fewer bargaining chips. Earlier this month, anonymous professional network Blind released results of its survey of 3,000 employees that showed 64% would rather work from home than get a $30,000 raise. Only two of the 45 companies represented in the survey saw a majority vote, albeit a slim one, for the raise. Even those who embrace the hybrid workplace for employees must tread carefully.

As workplace culture adviser and founder of New York-based Culture with Us, Alexandra Schrecengost, told the Business Journals this May, it’s crucial to step up your communication and training, account for differing personalities and needs with your workers, refrain from making promises you can’t keep, and to keep an open dialogue with employees about your decision-making. “I think their struggle is that it does take more effort. It takes systems. It takes processes and all of that to get it right,” said Anne Maltese, director of people insights at Quantum Workplace, a human resources technology company that works with the Washington Business Journal on its Best Places to Work ranking. “If you don’t get it right, I think you’re going to have long-term productivity issues.” On the forefront of trying to figure it all out now are the region’s recruiting firms as they navigate the changing dynamics of office commutes and employees’ own personal priorities, particularly their children’s education and welfare. “Everybody has really taken a step back and reassessed what’s important to them,” said Kim Shanahan, president and CEO of accelHRate in Herndon. “How can I have actual balance? Before, sometimes we would kid ourselves about what balance actually looked like.” Some workers are no longer willing to relocate or travel heavily, while others actually want a stronger return to office, causing some friction for employers as they try to balance needs.

Some companies are having to walk back their initial decisions, whether allowing for more or less remote work. Inc. recently shifted its policy from a full return to the office to a more hybrid setup. Shanahan said employers are likely to lose employees if they’re too stringent on a return-to-office policy, but they’re recognizing the need to have some employees working on site. “A lot of CEOs over the last year have said that their executive team can be remote. They were actually hiring people on the executive team and saying, ‘Listen, they can work from anywhere,'” she said. “But now they’re snapping back, many of them, and saying, ‘Actually, we do need people at headquarters.'” Savvy companies are using remote flexibility as a recruiting tool, particularly to attract those formerly out of reach – and workers are responding to those ads, or choosing not to apply if they don’t see that specified, recruiters said. Companies that can’t transform with their industries, they said, will struggle. “If an organization is rooted in traditional philosophies, it will be tough to shift in order to take advantage of new practices,” said Aaron Copeland, founder and CEO of Alignstaffing in D.C. “More traditional organizations will likely go back to what they know, pre-2020. More malleable organizations, however, will try to read the tea leaves, figuring out what efficiencies can be incorporated post-Covid.” While remote recruiting allows companies to pick from a global talent pool, that distributed workforce also makes employee engagement more of a premium as they compete with potential poachers with more proximity to that person.

Recruiters said companies will need to spend time on building culture with the full team when you can’t walk down the hall to chat, as well as creating tracks for promotions and professional development for those employees. Ultimately, experts agreed, it still could be some time before we know how these changes will affect the future of work. “We likely won’t see a complete shift now,” Copeland said. “The concept of remote work will morph into something else. We just don’t know what it is yet.” When recruiting Aaron Copeland suggests these best practices for recruiting, retaining and promoting remote workers.

  • Clearly understand your culture.
  • Communicate key performance indicators (KPIs) fully.
  • Realize the mental health issues associated with extended use of a virtual platform and provide solutions to decompress – for example, suggest mid-day yoga classes or fitness-related activities to break the day up. Show that you care by being creative.
  • Create a company community.
  • Reduce anxiety by talking about meeting agendas prior to virtual meetings.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.” – Jane Oates, president of D.C.-based WorkingNation, a nonprofit campaign devoted to workforce challenges, and former assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration under President Barack Obama, about the current, fast-tightening job market and intensifying labor shortages. One of the sticking points in that will likely be employees’ desire for remote work. 

What employers need to know When it comes to shifting to a hybrid office model, there’s no dearth of advice from human resources, workforce and legal experts, who have offered these tips to the Business Journals. 

Legal protections: For employees who have legal protections against return to work, such as medical conditions, employers shouldn’t probe too far into the details of those conditions, due to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations, but should suggest alternative accommodations to resolve the situation – or designate whether certain jobs can be done remotely or not. For those without legal protections, it’s possible for employers to terminate those who refuse to return to the office if there’s a mandate. 

Return-to-work plans: Employers should gauge the sentiments of their workers as they craft their return-to-work policies, including having one-on-one conversations with those reluctant to return to get a greater understanding of their feelings and how they can help those workers through the transition. This dialogue should include top leadership of the organization. 

Vaccination mandates: The tide is turning a bit toward employers that are considering mandates that their employees get vaccinated, in part due to new guidance released by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration that fully vaccinated workers can resume activities without masks or social distancing, coupled with a federal court’s dismissal of a Texas lawsuit by hospital employees over its vaccine requirement. Full federal vaccine approvals could also likely lead to more mandates, though employers should keep in mind medical and religious exemptions and state and local laws that may govern such a move. 

Clear communication: Experts say one of the worst mistakes companies can make is failing to adequately communicate the policy, strategy and expectations of the new model. Experts suggest having a specific return date and defined expectations, and offer workforce training sessions for management teams to clarify and track those expectations, workflow and reporting structures. 

Buy in: Communication isn’t enough, employers need buy-in from managers at all levels of the organization on the policies to function properly. Training for individual managers also helps alleviate some of this burden from falling solely on the human resources departments or personnel. 

Consistency: It’s tempting for companies to make accommodations for star performers or revenue generators, but experts say it’s best for companies to take a more position-by-position approach, rather than person-by-person one in order to avoid potential unintended issues of discrimination or alienation of individual staffers. For star employers, it may be worth a direct, one-on-one conversation to lay out the case for why her or his physical presence is important in the workplace. 

Tax consequences: Often overlooked is the effect of work-from-home on taxes because of the varying regulations and rates among states and municipalities, particularly in the D.C. region. Employers should consider whether a work-from-home request results in creating a corporate tax presence in a place where the company doesn’t currently do business and research all tax implications even in districts where they do to avoid scenarios of double taxation. Experts say companies can designate acceptable locations for remote work, while creating a mechanism to track it for necessary compliance. 

Real estate: This is causing an evolution of lease negotiations and physical office design as companies reenvision their physical workspaces to reflect more hybrid work. Perhaps office spaces can include rooms optimized for virtual calls, more variety in seating areas and unassigned workstations that allow for more flexible, collaborative spaces. Employers will also need to think about necessary equipment costs for employees – and whether they subsidize or budget for those – particularly for items that aren’t easily transportable on a day-to-day basis. 

Performance management: Some experts suggest an online performance management tool to give entire teams visibility into goal progress, both for teams and individuals. Transparency in those systems will also help prevent the need for micromanagement. 

Constant conversations: Managers need to have a good idea about what is going on with their teams, including both personal and professional challenges. Conversations shouldn’t be one-side affairs focused solely on task management and results. Managers need to give employees a chance to express themselves and share any obstacles or concerns they have. 

Equity: Organizations must avoid creating a de facto class system that favors those who always choose to be in the office and might benefit from increased information and visibility. It’s key for management when enforcing or initiating hybrid policies to not forget, penalize or alienate those who may be working from home. Equity in collaboration and decision-making will remain a key concern for their workforces in making this successful and keeping their staffs productive and engaged. 

Flexibility: Employers should try to avoid dealing in absolutes and recognize that, given the vast changes of the past year, these policies being developed on the fly are likely to still evolve further over time. Organizations should opt for flexibility over the iron grip and instead of trying to mimic their pre-pandemic workplaces, start planning for what the office should look like six months from now. And no employer can assume any longer that any employee will eventually decide to return fully to the office when all is said and done. 

Case study: Kearney & Co. When Erin Ogburn, partner and chief people officer at Alexandria-based Kearney & Co., was asked whether remote work policies need changing due to the pandemic, her answer was resolute: “a capital Y-E-S.” She speaks from a point of evolution. Kearney was founded as a traditional CPA firm with a traditional work schedule, space, and dress policies – and the relatively strict expectations for workers to show up to the office each day or get specific telework approvals. Just before the pandemic, the firm had begun to allow people to work from home one day a week, but only after getting the client and manager green light to do so.

The company was just adding Microsoft Teams to its repertoire when Covid-19 hit in March 2020, changing its culture overnight from one that centered on employee gatherings, events and celebrations. “We’ve built this company and this culture around being together,” Ogburn said. Today, Kearney remains fully remote, with the exception of a handful of workers using secure facilities, Ogburn said. That includes staff now living in faraway cities and states – a change she said will continue going forward.

The firm has set a voluntary “soft” office reopening for October, with no plans to fully reopen until 2022, and even then, she said, it will be under a new hybrid norm. Ogburn attributes the changes to Kearney’s ability to meet or exceed its goals and maintain client ties for the past year. “We know people who have created a new life for themselves,” she said. “The pre-Covid employment landscape is gone. It’s not going to be back, probably in my working life. And as challenging as Covid has been, many people have been able to get their personal lives back.” This month, Kearney conducted an employee survey to find out how people felt about returning to the office versus staying remote. About two-thirds said they feel safe returning, while a third felt unsure or unsafe. “I’ll be honest,” she said, “that was a bigger number than I was expecting.” That, too, comes from an office where 80% of staffers were vaccinated or planned to be soon, based on an anonymous, voluntary poll.

Those willing to return also indicated expectations for social distancing and ramped-up cleaning routines. Ogburn said the key to maintaining a strong remote and hybrid workforce is in staying in touch, finding new ways from top leaders on down to engage with workers and finding personal touchpoints in the absence of in-person banter. She said staff responded positively to companywide biweekly email sent by COO Brian Kearney. “It was not a memo. It was a personal email that he wrote that gave people an idea of how he was doing, what he’s been up to, how plans are changing for the company, things to look forward to – not just professional, but personal,” she said. “It sounds so simple, but that email is something we hear about all the time.”

Managers across the company have also reached in to find out what individual employees need at different times to take care of themselves, their health and their families, Ogburn said. The company has offered everything from fitness activities – including a collaborative Pride walk this June – diversity discussion groups and mental wellness programs. With employees working at different times and time zones, the company has turned to different communication channels, even postcards. But the most crucial part of that, Ogburn said, is ensuring that every single person is talking to someone on a regular basis, to gauge their mental state of being and keep them feeling connected to the company. “Making sure everybody has somebody that is looking out for them and taking care of them is critical,” she said. “It’s not optional.” Hybrid and remote workplaces, she acknowledged, also require strong levels of trust, both by staffers but also by leadership. “When your people work remotely, you’re extending kind of an olive branch to say, ‘I trust you. And you’re going to get your job done,'” she said. “When we had to make the shift to being fully remote, those were important things to tell your folks.” That communication has to trickle down from the very heights of leadership and travel from the bottom back up, she said, but also “left and right and diagonal, and all across.” “I don’t know how companies are going to survive who don’t have culture and people as the priority.

We are all fighting for talent,” Ogburn said. “It’s going to be an interesting next 12 or 18 months, as we all figure this out.” The fruits of flexibility Q&A: Monica Dalwadi Accounting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP is going all in and taking a relatively progressive stance when it comes to the concept of flexibility and remote work, already operating in a hybrid model and even expanding on its pre-pandemic options to work from home, or another site. We spoke to Monica Dalwadi, its managing partner for the D.C. metro region, about what’s changing, how it’s working and what they’ve learned. Here are Dalwadi’s thoughts, edited for space and clarity. 

What was your remote work policy before the pandemic? We were very flexible. People could opt to work from other locations, at alternative times, but we would have had a plan in place around that – a flexible work arrangement so everybody knew where somebody might be and what hours they might be working. 

How about now? We’ve gone even further on the end of flexibility. We’re calling it either “open architecture” or “hybrid” – I don’t know that a word has fully stuck yet. But this allows you to work from whatever location you like, as long as it works for your clients and teams. We have team members who opted for an Airbnb location for a month in the summertime, because they don’t have clients asking them to be on site for that entire period. 

What are employee attitudes around returning to work versus staying remote? Some of our newer team members – our interns, new hires, professionals that just joined us – they are interested in being in the office to learn, to network, to develop. Others who may have been here 10 years-plus, they’re going, “This is an opportunity for me to work from another location,” and take advantage of some things that were positive during the pandemic, like the ability to be right at home with family at lunchtime. 

What should employers be especially careful about with the hybrid model? How are you appropriately teaching and training people in a remote environment, so all of that doesn’t just fall to people in the office? How are you giving them the same type of experience? Because in the past, it was you see someone and you might pull them into an engagement, into some client work. And now, how do you get purposeful with that? 

What else can be overlooked? How much people might miss that in-person connection. You’ll try to get everybody on Zoom, but the Zoom fatigue is real. I think people can so often disconnect in the Zoom format. 

How do hybrid meetings work? We’re right at the beginning stages of the journey right now, for sure. Just recently, we had a partner meeting, and I would say 90% of the partners wanted to meet in person, and the other 10% needed to be remote. We had the first hour of the meeting be focused on business items we needed to cover, and then we did some fun activity with them on the phone, and then the rest of it was just to socialize. It did require a good technology setup and a meeting room where we needed more space. 

How has increased remote work affected your hiring? We’ve been able to find talent from all different geographies, which has been good. We’ve had resumes come through of individuals who are like, “I like the ability to maybe work from home two days, but my employer is requiring me to come in five days a week.” So they’re interviewing with us now. 

What are you telling them? Maybe they only want to work certain months of the year, or certain hours during the week. And we’re saying: We’re going to try to work with you to make this work with our clients and work for the professionals. So in terms of skill set, years of experience, diversity and diversity of talent, we can get more options. 

What’s the disadvantage of doing that? How do we connect them into everybody? There are D.C. marketplace events I’m starting to see pop back up on the calendar. Last week alone, I went to two networking events in one day, and some of those are not being planned weeks and months in advance – so if you’re not in the market, how do you take advantage of those types of opportunities, to have those connection points. That’s something we’re trying to figure out. 

What’s the plan for that now? For our busy season, they might be here for three to four days a week for four and a half months. And in that time period, they’re training and developing a team, they’re out at a client’s site, they’re attending all the networking events. They’ll try to bundle as much together to make it worthwhile for the travel. 

What’s in store for your hybrid format? I think we’re at a part of the pendulum right now that is very, very flexible. You have to balance structure and flexibility. What I’m seeing from our team members is they would like some more structure. But it’s so early. We flipped the switch in one day to take everybody remote – it’s going to take much longer to say what are the right structure and parameters. 

How is the staff participating in that? We’re trying to co-design how that comes together. We have a place on our intranet site – people can opt in, they can provide resources, lead an area of the conversation, be a part of a facilitation group. 

How are your teams adjusting to the changes so far? I’ve been going to the office, and the days I go in, my team members are asking me, “Is this your routine? Which days are you going to be here?” And I’m like, “I don’t have a set routine yet.” But I also think in the fall, when more kids start going back to school, they’ll have a better routine and be able to figure it out. So I’ve encouraged our team members that you don’t have to know your exact routine yet.

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