Where Have They All Gone: Will employees come back to the office when we reopen?

Lindsey Sanford

5m read

December 18

There is a migration afoot. Employees are voting with their feet and fleeing urban areas in droves due to the COVID pandemic.

Workers have a variety of reasons for relocating—they may want to move to an area with lower cost-of-living expenses, be closer to parents or extended family, or live in an area with a different climate or better access to activities or hobbies, such as outdoor pursuits. Of course, most of these things were true before the pandemic pushed many companies into embracing telecommuting. The difference is that now employees feel they can leave a geographic area without leaving their job, and they have the productivity to prove it.

The difference is that now employees feel they can leave a geographic area without leaving their job, and they have the productivity to prove it.

Employee choice and flexibility

In fact, flexible work arrangements have already been in the hearts and minds of our employees for years, if not, decades. In a pre-COVID LinkedIn article, 82% of employees expressed interest in working from home at least one day per month and 57% wanted to work 3 or more days from their home. In Deloitte’s February 2020 pre-COVID survey, 94% of employees indicated that they would benefit from flexible working options. The pandemic is causing greater urgency for employees to work remotely, especially those living in big cities and other high cost-of-living areas.

82% of employees expressed interest in working from home at least one day per month.

Winning the war on talent

In a recent study by Just Capital, 89% of employees expected their companies to rethink work as a result of the pandemic. Are employers prepared to deal with this new employee-driven paradigm?

Do we understand what our employees really want and need from us? I am not sure we do and, at the moment, the stakes are higher than they have ever been. What is at risk for companies is a quality relationship with our talent – current and future.

Companies that take the time to rethink “what work could be” with an employee-centric lens
will be the winners in the “war on talent.” We must use this moment to break from the inertia of the past by tossing out biased mindsets, habits and systems. This kind of change will require transformational thinking, grounded in data, with a focus on the employee. And re-thinking physical space is just the tip of the iceberg – yet the decisions we make there will impact a new way of thinking about every aspect of the employee life cycle.

Re-thinking physical space is just the tip of the iceberg.

Bringing it all together

Whether people are working remotely, or in some form of hybrid (part-time in the office) we
must reimagine about how to keep our culture alive, how best we equip our leaders to lead
distributed teams, how we deliver employee development and training, how we promote
equitably with no bigger weight to ‘face time” (in a hybrid work environment) and how we
measure productivity. Perhaps most importantly, though, is how do we outfit our companies
with systems to allow everyone the ability to work and collaborate optimally.

I don’t think we have many of these answers yet, but our environments have accelerated the
need to get working on them. That’s why Palo Alto Networks, Splunk, Box, Uber and Zoom have joined forces to form FLEXWORK, a consortium that has made a commitment to collaborate to accelerate the development and implementation of employee-centric work practices.

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