When the pandemic hit and the health and safety of staff employees and contingent workers became employers’ top concern, pivoting to a remote-work format was an easy — if not government-mandated — decision. Two and a half years later, deciding when and how — or even if — to bring the workforce back to the office is much more difficult and nuanced. More and more employers are turning toward the hybrid work model — a mixture of in-office and remote work — that seems more in keeping with what workers are willing to accept.

Marketplace Challenges, Worker Demands

In today’s tight labor market, employers may have no choice but to acquiesce to demands for remote policies in order to secure the best contingent talent available.

“There are less people in the workforce,” says Adam Barnes, senior director, sourcing and procurement, external workforce a services, at Northwestern Mutual. “The people that are applying are demanding a remote work environment.”

Prior to the pandemic, remote work at NM was on an exception basis. Now, some workers are and will remain remote, despite the organization’s encouragement to come back to the office on a hybrid basis, Barnes says. “People hired during the pandemic have proven their value, and it doesn’t make sense to get rid of valuable people just because they can’t be on location all the time.”

That said, hybrid may be a better approach than an all-or-nothing dictate.

Slack’s Future Forum Pulse survey of 10,000 global office workers found both executives and nonexecutives are embracing the hybrid working model, with 65% of all workers saying they would prefer to work some of the time from the office and some of the time remotely.

The report found that while both groups want a hybrid approach, executives want to spend more time in the office and less time remotely, while the opposite is true for nonexecutives. Nearly twice as many executives, 38%, say they would prefer to work from the office three to four days a week, compared with 24% of the nonexecutives surveyed. In addition, the nonexecutives are more than three times as likely as their bosses to want to work fully remotely.

And leaders who issue top-down mandates designed to return workforces to prior conventions of the 9-to-5 workdays and five days in the office are likely to experience resistance from their employees, according to the research.

“If you’re thinking in terms of ‘returning’ — returning to the old way, returning to the way the office used to be, returning to what worked for you — then it’s time to rethink that direction,” Ryan Anderson, the VP of global research and insights at MillerKnoll, said in the report. “We need to move forward to a new path, and that requires engaging your employees to establish new ways of working together.”

Adaptability Is Key

When the pandemic hit and workers were first directed to work from home, no one really knew how long the situation would last and when things would return to “normal.” Dates for a return to normal were continually pushed back. Employers and workers alike could not know that, for many, the work-from-home situation would continue for months, years and maybe indefinitely.

The lessons learned from the shift to remote can help guide the shift back to the office: It remains important to be flexible and take an adaptive stance.

“Don’t be so definitive on dates of when you are coming back,” advises Northwestern Mutual’s Barnes. “Things change so quick and so fast that if you take definitive dates and you have to walk that back, it seems disingenuous to your employment base. If you take the stance of being adaptive and flexible, it allows you to be adaptive and flexible when things change quickly.”

Future CWS 3.0 articles on return-to-office policies will address company culture, pay policies and DE&I initiatives.