Top Leaders and Influencers Report on the Current Status of WFH and What the Future May Hold
Compiled from the gatekeeper’s insights and comments….
What’s covered in this article:
- 95% have implemented WFH policies
- 72% say their employees are more productive
- 75% say their employees are happier
- WFH leaders face different challenges then their WFH employees
- WFH leaders are not as happy as their WFH employees
- 70% of employees report missing the workplace and 55% report feeling isolated
- Leaders have strong feelings but minimal plans for post pandemic WFH
In a pre-COVID-19 survey, Buffer’s State of Remote Report 2020, 98% of employees surveyed wanted to WFH at least part time. Despite this, only 3% of the U.S. workforce reported that they were actually working from home.
A lot has changed since the beginning of the year.
COVID-19, as we all know, forced most organizations to rapidly transition their employees to remote work—ostensibly granting many employees their work-from-home wishes. Our recent survey of the gatekeepers™ found that 95% of organizations have implemented new or broader remote work policies during the pandemic.
The gatekeepers is a virtual consortium of leaders and influencers who donate their time and advice to create free content for up-and-coming leaders and the broader executive community. You can see a list of the gatekeepers here.
The gatekeepers report that the transition to remote work has exceeded expectations. Not only have employees indicated they enjoy the more flexible approach to work, leaders have also been proud of the rapid transition their organizations were able to achieve and have been surprised by the productivity gains that remote work has ushered in. We asked the gatekeepers a series of questions about the challenges and surprises that have come along with it. Here’s what they had to say:
75% of leaders say their employees prefer WFH but experience challenges
While employees have been largely positive about working from home, leaders recognize the challenges their employees are experiencing.
“Our teams have universally welcomed the additional freedom and flexibility that working from home has provided,” explains Joe Hartsig, EVP, Chief Merchandising Officer and President, Harmon stores at Bed Bath & Beyond. “But they have also let us know that they miss the easier collaboration that benefits from daily in-person connection.”
Rene Haas, President of ARM, says that his employees have had mixed reactions to working from home. “People enjoy the flexibility but miss the sense of team,” says Haas.
“While working from home is working well, it is very difficult for parents and we find Zoom fatigue setting in,” adds a CHRO gatekeeper.
Gatekeepers report that many of their employees are dealing with working from home very well, while others have multiple stress factors in their homes. “Most of the negative reactions we get are the result of challenging work environments at home—for example, kids, a lack of space, and poor internet service,” says Mark Polansky, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry.
Chi Nguyen, EVP and Chief Financial Officer at EmployBridge Holding Company, shares that the productivity gains are great for the overall company, but she adds, “Our company culture is important and our sense of community is created through in-person social interactions.”
“Before the pandemic, Ancestry enabled some work-from-home flexibility, but we have always put a premium on building a culture of collaboration. We put a high value on in-person teamwork, but given the safety issues, we are presently 100% WFH. “ says Mike Linton, the company’s Chief Revenue Officer.
Here are the WFH downsides employees report to management:
- Missing aspects of the workplace – 70%
- School-age children at home – 64%
- General home environment distractions – 63%
- A sense of isolation – 55%
- Video call fatigue – 52%
Most leaders report that they are doing whatever they can to help their teams overcome the challenges of WFH. For example, Microsoft implemented new policies, including giving parents extra time and coaching managers to be more empathetic regarding parenting issues at home, according to Alec Saunders, a Senior Director at Microsoft.
A majority of leaders continue to be surprised by WFH productivity gains
Traditionally, leaders have been hesitant to let employees work from home.
“Many leaders had the old school, out of sight out of mind mentality, but that has now changed. Managers now see people actually working longer hours and delivering a high-quality product,” shares Tyler Best, Chief Information Officer at Adient.
“I always thought employees who asked for a WFH day were actually taking the day off,” says Patrick Fay, Managing Director and Head of Enterprise Efficiency at Mizuho Securities USA. After being forced to embrace remote work due to COVID-19, his perceptions have dramatically changed. “Now we all know it can be quite effective and productive.”
And the productivity gain was not just an implementation bubble – the leaders report that the gains have been sustained. Based on the positive results their organizations have achieved, many of the gatekeepers believe that remote work will become increasingly important in the future.
For Ralph Bennett, President and CEO of Waterworks, working from home will enable his organization to lower its expenses. “We will never need the office space we had prior to COVID,” Bennett says. “Remote works.”
Danielle Monaghan, VP and Head of Global Talent Acquisition and Mobility at Uber, shared her observations. “My team can be as productive or more productive than just working in an office,” Monaghan says, adding that perhaps Uber will take a “hybrid approach moving forward.”
Nigel Hurst, EVP and Chief Human Resources Officer at HEI Hotels and Resorts, agrees. “Some level of remote working should be here to stay,” Hurst says. “Employees welcome it, and productivity can be maintained or improved.”
“We’ve made it work,” says Fede Barreto, CFO of the Plymouth Tube Company. “Although some aspects need to be better understood, the new paradigm will ultimately benefit employees and reduce operating costs.”
“The results have been incredibly more positive than I would have expected,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope agrees. “We have made huge productivity gains.”
How long will the new normal last?
66% of leaders said their employees will work from home for the foreseeable future, for at least one year or indefinitely.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, organizations large and small were forced to pivot to remote work rapidly to keep their employees safe. Everyone knows about the difficulties small companies have experienced due to COVID-19, but even for mega companies, the rapid transition has come with its fair share of cultural and operational challenges.
While enterprises like Google see the value of time in the office, “Google has always believed that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new,” explains Brendan Castle, Global Head of Recruiting at Google.
Does this mean that Google will send everyone back to the office as soon as it is safe? “For now, employees have the option to work from home until mid-2021. We are discussing a long-term work-from-home policy now. We may end up with something more flexible—maybe a hybrid policy,” shares Castle.
Not every industry can be as flexible. For instance, Unilever could not move all employees to remote work—many employees who are critical to the supply chain have to continue to report to the office or the plant. The same is true for all the leaders of manufacturing, healthcare, retail, and many services companies within the gatekeepers community.
Unilever expanded their manufacturing by shipping sanitizer as the global need for more supply became urgent. In conjunction with implementing safe frontline work policies amid the pandemic, Unilever moved 56,000 of their remaining employees to remote work. According to CEO Jope, “there’s no end in sight to remote work in many places within our company.”
For some organizations, like Sterling National Bank, the pandemic has caused them to rethink the way they will do business moving forward. “We will most likely never redeploy 100% of our workforce back to the office,” says Thomas X. Geisel, Sterling’s President of Corporate Banking.
While enterprises like Google see the value of time in the office, companies like Sterling National Bank see the pandemic as an opportunity to reorganize to save costs and increase employee productivity.
Do leaders like working from home as much as employees do?
While the transition to remote work has delivered a number of unexpected personal benefits for many leaders, it’s not all roses for many. For instance, team collaboration in remote settings can be more difficult, and leaders worry about retaining culture and ensuring employees feel a part of the whole. Several leaders sited the complexity and sensitivities of leading a WFH workforce along with a workforce who cannot work from home. WFH can make the job harder for some leaders.
“The loss of human interaction leads to creativity loss—a subtle stall to innovation,” explains Stephen Lavin, Redbox’s Chief Technology Officer.
At the same time, leaders need to figure out how to juggle the needs of employees who can’t work from home with the needs of those that must work from home.
“In retail, there’s a division between the jobs that can’t be done remotely and those that can,” says Jim Dorey, President of PriceRite Marketplace. “That creates a challenge in managing all employees and ensuring all safety measures are taken when some jobs cannot be done from home.”
But leaders don’t miss aspects of the workplace as much, don’t seem to feel as isolated, or distracted or stressed as their employees do while working from home. Leaders report their WFH experience as different from their employees’ experiences. They say employees are twice as likely to feel isolated at home compared to leaders. And only 38% of leaders report they miss aspects of the workplace, while nearly 70% of their employees do. There is one point of perceived consensus: half of leaders report being tired of video calls and they say half of their employees feel the same way.
What are the WFH challenges for leaders?
- 66% say making sure their employees don’t feel isolated
- 38% report feeling socially isolated
- 38% report missing aspects of the workplace
- 47% report difficultly maintaining company culture
- Only 5% report having school children at home as a challenge
In addition, career development and onboarding was repeatedly listed as a challenge—for both leaders and their employees. “The biggest thing for me has been building relationships,” explains Christopher Paquette, SVP and Chief Digital and Strategy Officer with Trustmark Benefits. “I changed roles and companies in early February 2020, leaving only a handful of weeks in person to build relationships in a new institution before quarantine started.”
Despite productivity gains, the future of remote work is unclear
When asked to predict the future, 72% of gatekeeper companies are still unsure if they will retain WFH policies.
“We are part of a larger corporation and while our division and others have not had an issue, the culture directive from corporate is to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible,” says Mark Sullivan, President of Buckhorn, Inc.
“We need to take a longer-term view,” explains Michael Alicea, Chief Human Resources Officer for Nielsen. “We need to consider how our clients will to be supported.”
Due to the success companies have experienced with remote work, it seems as though many organizations will continue working at home in some capacity. But at the same time, if our survey of 61 leaders across 60 companies indicates a broader trend, a significant percentage of companies will return most of their employees to the office when the pandemic is officially behind us.
In the not so distant post-vaccine world, many leaders will have their work cut out for them due to the 2020 COVID-19 WFH mandate. They will have to make hard decisions.
As an example, Del Larcen, Partner at Private Equity firm, Gryphon Investors, shares that they are no longer requiring distant new hires to move to the bay area. Will this new policy return to the old relocation policy post pandemic?
What if it makes sense for teams to come back to the office while employees want to keep working from home or now, perhaps from a remote location? And how will leaders recruit and retain top talent if competitors offer WFH options and they don’t? Time will tell.
The gatekeepers is a diverse virtual consortium of leaders that provide insights and advice to up-and-coming leaders and the broader executive community as free content on social media.
The gatekeepers is sponsored by Waterman Hurst, a leadership career consulting and marketing firm.