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The return of employees to the workplace can introduce new challenges to business leaders. Changing attitudes about remote work and how it might affect equal access to opportunities could require a shift in the design of your workplace.
Traditional office spaces were designed to support spontaneous meetings, structured hours of operation and visibility of employee activity. However, the office-centric model was upended when a huge portion of the workforce transitioned to remote work in the spring of 2020 after the federal government declared a state of emergency to slow the spread of COVID-19. Gallup reports that more than a year later, 7 in 10 white-collar workers are still working from home.
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But with increasing rates of vaccination and more investments in workplace safety measures, employers are contemplating requiring their workers to return to the office in some form or another. This has sparked a nationwide debate about the right balance of in-person and remote work, with (naturally) remote workers tending to want more flexibility and autonomy in choosing where they work while employers generally favor a full return to in-person offices.
Still, attitudes toward returning to the office are not monolithic among the workforce, differing not only by generation but also by mental health concerns. The Pew Research Center reports that while older generations are more comfortable returning to the office than younger workers (boomers are 43 percent in favor, Gen X is at 38 percent and millennials 24 percent), mental health remains a top priority for a majority of the workforce. The Conference Board reports that 61 percent of people, particularly women and millennials, cite stress and burnout as a main concern in returning to the workplace.
The experiences of remote employees are not monolithic. Unequal access to high-speed internet can affect the productivity and visibility of employees residing in internet deserts or desolate transportation hubs. Caregivers in the sandwich generation may experience time inequities and the financial strains of supporting family members. As the landscape continues to shift and some employees begin returning to in-person work, the potential exists to revert to conventional patterns of valuing “face time” supervisions, which could lead to equity challenges for remote workers who need or want the flexibility to work from home.