With Companies Returning to the Office, Many Employees Continue Working From Home

Offices are reopening, but more than half of employees haven’t returned, according to a new report from Korn Ferry. Why a yearlong effort to convince staffs to come back is stalling. Let’s take a closer look!

April 20, 2022 – The COVID rate has been falling. Numerous firms have refurbished their offices, and, in many cases, set new deadlines for people to come back. But a new report from Korn Ferry says something is missing: the workers. As of last week, only 43.1 percent of employees are working at their pre-pandemic offices, according to office key-swipe data compiled by Kastle Systems across 10 major metropolitan areas. That’s the highest level since the pandemic began more than two years ago, but barely above the 40.5 percent level of a month ago. “Leadership and professional development, sees it, as the longer people work outside the office full-time, the more difficult it will be to get them to embrace returning full-time,” said Bryan Ackermann, Korn Ferry managing partner for assessment and succession. “It isn’t, wait another six months and it’ll normalize.”

Texas has seen the highest rate of employees returning—which isn’t to say that offices there could be described as packed. As of last week, the Austin area was at 63 percent of its usual occupancy, up from 52.9 percent a month earlier. The Houston and Dallas metro areas were at 55.5 percent and 50.9 percent, respectively. Both areas were slightly below 50 percent a month ago. On the other side of the spectrum, only about one-third of San Jose-area employees were back in offices. Occupancy was at less than 40 percent in and around Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, according to Kastle.

That said, plenty of employees up and down the corporate ladder are eager to get back to the office. “Some senior leadership teams haven’t seen one another in two years and want to resume face-to-face meetings,” said Mr. Ackermann. “On the other side, numerous young employees would like to start spending workdays with coworkers, not roommates or parents.”

Still, almost two-thirds of professionals told Korn Ferry that returning to the office will have a negative impact on their mental health. Many don’t want to go back full-time, and companies fear workers might revolt if they aren’t offered some sort of accommodation. Even some high-profile corporate leaders who have been adamant about bringing everyone back to the office now admit they’ll need to make room for at least some employees to work remotely some of the time. “Employers have to show why the return to the office is beneficial to both the employee and the firm,” said Juan Pablo Gonzàlez, Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s professional services practice. “It’s a hard-dates-with-flexibility approach,” said Kristi Drew, Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account leader for financial services. “These companies are letting employees work out with their individual managers how many days they need to be at the bricks-and-mortar workplace. Remote working used to be a differentiator for employers, now it might be table stakes.”

To some degree, companies have been launching various back-to-office efforts for more than a year. COVID resurgences have stalled many plans, but experts say organizations haven’t created a compelling reason for people to return, according to the Korn Ferry report. Some suggest, for example, that firms could require team meetings or trainings to take place in person at the office. That could give a sense of schedule stability not only to team members but also to anyone outside the organization who works with them.

“Additionally, companies might want to move away from designating some jobs as remote and others as in-office,” said Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources. “Instead, organizations should define the outcomes they expect out of each role, then figure out how those outcomes will be met.”

Related: 5 Tips for Evaluating, Interviewing & Onboarding in a Virtual World 

The current situation, in which nearly every organization—and sometimes each of its different offices—has its own return-to-office plan, is confusing to nearly everyone. “No one knows who’s working where or when, or—for that matter—if ever, how do you engage, workshop, or get your job done?” Mr. Ackermann asked. “It’s not just hybrid, it’s unpredictably hybrid.”

Setting the Pace for Virtual Outplacement

The process of looking for a new job after having been laid off has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, which has only been accelerated by the pandemic. Virtual outplacement firm Careerminds, a longtime leader in its field, has met these changing norms by focusing on two key aspects for individuals participating in its programs – the people and the technology.

“On the people side, programs in the past have generally been time bound,” said Careerminds founder and chief executive officer Raymond Lee. “One of the key components about our contemporary model is that we work with participants through the entire process. We provide proactive outreach, proactive coaching, all the way until the participant lands in their new job. As for technology, we’ve incorporated artificial intelligence and machine learning into the process, which really has an impact and provides a dynamic user experience for the participant who’s going through a career transition.” It is a contemporary model that aligns with current job search norms.

“The virtual work phenomenon is here to stay, and it’s only going to involve more people over time” said Jeanne MacDonald, president of global RPO solutions for Korn Ferry. “To be successful, virtual workers need to show that they can be productive anywhere, engage with their boss and teams, and enter the workplace strategically. The more they are seen, the more successful they will be when working virtually.”

Tips for Managing a Hybrid Work Week

If employees are working in more than one location, they will need to be organized in terms of the work they do, who they want to connect with, and how they will keep track of information,” said Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry advisory.

Here are some tips:

Be deliberate about the work you do at each location.

Some tasks, like writing or strategy development, are better suited to quiet time at home, while brainstorming and team meetings are more successful when everyone is in the same room. “Let the task determine whether it should be completed in the office or at home,” said Mr. Ackermann. “Are you working on a deliverable, or are you collaborating on a project with your team? That should drive whether you work on it remotely or in person.”

Establish one day for the whole team to come into the office.

A hybrid schedule can feel random. “You don’t know who will be at the office until you get there,” Mr. Ackermann said. “To maximize collaborative time, teams should decide together which day of the week to work in the office. On that day, schedule a team meeting, brainstorming sessions, and other collaborative work.”

Think about what you’re missing by working remotely.

Plan your days in the office around opportunities for personal development and social activities—both of which can be hard to come by when you’re working from home. “Consider the other meetings that might be happening and whether a lunch or happy hour is planned for the day you come into the office,” said Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global lead for optimizing people costs. “Try to schedule time with people in other departments you occasionally work with.”

Use flexibility to your advantage.

“Think about upcoming personal commitments on your weekly schedule—such as a doctor’s appointment or an event at your child’s school—that would be easier to manage if you skipped your commute into work,” said Mr. Royal. “If you have a recurring appointment or volunteer obligation, plan your work-from-home days around that event.”

Move files online.

“If you’re working from both home and office, consider using your laptop for note-taking to minimize the amount of paper you need to carry,” said Elise Freedman, senior client partner and workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry. “Collaboration documents should live on an internal network, not your personal laptop. If it’s online, then it doesn’t matter where you work.”

Related: Keys to Leading Your Remote Teams

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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