As concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic continue stabilizing in the workplace, a recent study by Future Forum provides insight for “knowledge worker” businesses of all shapes and sizes that are either lightly regrouping in the office or implementing hybrid or full return-to-office (RTO) policies.

First and foremost: Work-related stress and anxiety among full-time office workers and people without schedule flexibility are at an all-time high. Future Forum’s Inflexible Return-to-Office Policies are Hammering Employee Experience research study highlights four key observations supporting this main point. These findings, as well as research consortium Future Forum, represent the culmination of a unique human-capital research initiative created by workplace messaging platform Slack in an effort to help companies as they make very personal post-COVID office integration decisions.

Research Points to the Need for Smart Workforce Management

Here are the conclusions (and the total workforce management solution helping to remedy this momentous transition for employees):

First, many knowledge workers are experiencing increased stress. Due to the implementation of RTO policies, many employees’ work-related stress and anxieties have reached the highest levels since the Future Forum’s survey began.

  • About one-third of knowledge workers (34 percent) reported working five days a week from their office.
  • All eight employee-experience measures that Future Forum surveys have dropped to near-record lows due to this shift.Most notably, the survey shows work-life balance declined by 17percent.

Second, the steepest worker-experience declines were observed among full-time office employees. While employee experience scores fell for all knowledge workers — likely due in part to concerns and challenges around the spread of COVID-19 — full-time office workers (who already ranked behind remote and hybrid employees on eight key sentiment measures) posted the sharpest declines, including:

  • Two times as steep a decline in work-life balance compared to flexible (hybrid and remote) workers.
  • One-and-a-half times as steep a decline in overall satisfaction with their working environment compared to flexible-schedule workers.
  • One-and-a-half times worsening work-related stress and anxiety compared to remote workers.

Third, C-level executives face a troubling double standard. Executives say they want to work from the office, but it’s their employees who are being told to show up.

  • Non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to be working from the office five days a week.
  • Non-executives’ work-life balance survey scores are now 40 percent worse than their bosses, plummeting at five times the rate of executives.
  • Non-executives are also reporting more than twice the level of work-related stress and anxiety as executives.

Fourth, underrepresented groups are more likely to experience attrition if rigid policies are implemented.Knowledge workers with little-to-no ability to set their own work hours are 2.6-times as likely to look for a new job in the coming year compared to those with schedule flexibility.

  • This effect could be most pronounced among women, people of color, and working parents (especially working mothers) who continue reporting the greatest interest in flexible schedules and working locations.
  • The percentage of women who say they want to work flexibly at least three days a week was 58 percent compared to 48 percent of men.
  • Meanwhile, the number of working mothers who say they want location flexibility rose to 82percent, an all-time high since Future Forum began its survey.

You can download the full report and read more about a time of continued uncertainty and upheaval, the causes of widespread dissatisfaction, a troubling double standard in who is feeling RTO policy pain, a widening rift between company policy and knowledge-worker needs, flexibility and the gateway to a diverse workplace, and keys to retaining top talent.

A Tale of Two Return-to-Office (RTO) Arrangements

According to a recent New York Times article, RTO plans “used to be held together with something like magic, or at least like math.” The formula was three days in the office (60 percent of one’s workweek) and two days at home. “Three days for that mythic cafeteria banter, two days for pants that don’t button.”

Fast-forward to today: “Forget it. The three-two weekday RTO split, like so many other aspects of office reopening plans, has begun to seem less like gospel and more like gibberish.” Hybrid workplace models have evolved differently at different offices. Some models demand weekly flexibility, whether a four-one, three-two, two-three, or one-four WFH versus RTO schedule.

The article points to a recent survey of 10,000 offices by Robin, the “great workplace experience” consultant firm. It shows nearly 20 percent of American office workers are back one day a week, about 10 percent are back two days a week, 5 percent are back three days a week, and even fewer are back four or five days a week.

“There are plenty of company leaders still scratching their heads: Nearly a third of employers surveyed haven’t decided on their return-to-office plans, according to data from Manpower Group,” the New York Times article states.“And those in the process of setting or tweaking expectations realize there is a lot at stake, including how employees form relationships with one another and how they view their company leadership.”

Robin, as well as other consulting firms, was also used as an example in Fast Company Magazine of not “forcing” RTO on employees, but being nimble. “The office should be a productivity tool that employees can use strategically,” it states.

On top of all this, more than 50 percent of hybrid RTO staff do not use the office consistently every week, according to data from the workplace security firm Kastle. And… not that big of a surprise: Wednesday is the most popular day for going into the office if you’re going to do it.

Consider Total Workforce Management Services

Both corporate and small-business America are discovering what’s right for them month-by-month: RTO versus work-from-home (WFH), or both.The ability to work from home with the right technology and employee support in place can be more cost effective than working in an office. But working in-office brings benefits as well, and organizations will need to review what their post-COVID office environment should look like.

The past couple of years have taught us that the design of physical spaces facilitates better visual interaction between individuals — and better design of digital platforms does this too.For young employees starting out in their careers, this is a key discovery. Better physical and digital on boarding and management support helps develop career-related skills and networking.

We’ve also learned that including facilitators in meetings for employees who tend to feel excluded or seem reluctant to participate is helpful, including encouraging new employees who tend to be quiet to speak up.Creating situations and opportunities for social interaction that are impossible to have during an online meeting will result in a better engagement and bottom line.

Future hybrid work environments will be most successful for leaders who take a moment to consider what they’ve learned from the past couple of years working nearly fully remote.Managing a hybrid workforce becomes easy with a total workforce management service. Just as inter-departmental cloud technology allows organizations ensure their employees have immediately accessible work and can deliver to clients and customers, the human resources function should follow accordingly.Whether working at a remote location or in person, human resource and workforce managers can maintain an updated view of staff tasks, as well as time and attendance.

You can create a hybrid agenda once needs have been assessed, dividing into in-person and remote tasks.Smart workforce management software that helps businesses grow while reinventing how they work is what the most innovative companies and businesses are doing today, whether it’s human resources, payroll, time, attendance — and more.

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