En español | 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.
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.
The shift from an office-centric to a human-centric design can alleviate these equity pitfalls and accommodate the demands of life stages and other hidden challenges.
The 3 Tenets of a Human-Centric Workplace Design
According to Gartner Research, future workplace designs will focus on “the individual as the stable pillar we design work around.” The human-centric design model leverages three core tenets in its strategy:
1. Performance measured by outcome
Employers should consider pivoting from evaluating performance by visibility in the office to evaluating the actual results the worker achieved. If performance is measured by inputs the supervisor sees in person during the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. window of operation, that proximity bias could create a fault line in equity between employees who are present versus those who are remote.
Similarly, employers should embrace empathy-based management that provides employees with caregiving and health care demands equal opportunities for promotion and advancement. A performance-by-outcome strategy redesigns the playing field around equitable chances.
2. Intentional collaboration
For on-site employees, serendipitous meetings that drive connections and spark ideas are a perk of in-person work, but these interactions can create an unintended professional advantage for those employees if steps are not taken to enable similar collaboration with remote workers. Shifting to an intentional collaboration model can unlock simultaneous access to ideas, tools and opportunities for teamwork among all employees. Consider digital tools that allow team members to upload documents, make real-time edits, chat with others and use brainstorm features.
3. Flexible work experiences
The pandemic thrust thousands of employees into health management and caregiving roles alongside their previous work responsibilities. Where previously employers depended on consistent hours of operation, the future of work will require an overlap of flexible work experiences. Employers will need to accommodate and leverage four modes of work: in-person and together (in-person meetings), in-person and alone (working on-site in cubes and offices), remote and together (online meetings and collaboration), and remote and alone (asynchronous work).
Learning to get the most productivity and engagement out of this balance among the four modes will be a competitive advantage. The hybrid workforce requires it in order to create equal opportunities for all employees.
The future of work is hybrid, but the workplace design must be equitable for it to sustain and succeed as the new normal. Shifting from an office-centric to a human-centric workplace design requires empathy-based leadership that measures success by performance outcomes, intentional collaboration and flexibility. As the labor market tightens again and employers battle for talent, business leaders who are intentional with creating a human-centric workplace design position themselves as employers of choice.
Case Study: The Equity Challenge and Solutions of a Hybrid Workforce
AARP spoke with Employer Pledge Signer CVS Health to gauge how employers could navigate the new challenge building equity through hybrid work.
"We enable our purpose of bringing our heart to every moment of your health,” said Director of Workforce Initiatives Gregory Schmidt. “We strive to impact the communities we serve by building non-traditional talent pipelines through the power of partnerships. As we attract new talent to CVS Health, we also help break the cycle of poverty for people who may otherwise continue down the road of dependency, which often spans generations.”
As the retail giant navigated a hybrid workforce of front-line employees and remote corporate employees, the inequities of access and opportunity came into stark relief. Schmidt explored the employers equity challenges among employees and identified ways CVS could work to close the gap.
1. The challenge: the digital divide. As workplaces switched to remote work during the pandemic, the digital divide between American communities geographically became more apparent. The lack of reliable high-speed internet access revealed inequalities in the opportunity to work remote effectively. For other workers, the cost of high-speed internet was as much of a barrier as not having access at all.
The solution: Sponsor internet costs and installation. To bridge the gap, CVS took the initiative to sponsor the cost of at-home internet services to its employees living in digital deserts. Business leaders who support a variety of work environment logistics often have a stronger chance of loyalty and retention.
2. The challenge: employee burnout by life stage. Employees in the midst of health management and caregiving responsibilities may not be able to compete equitably with their work team members for the same levels of visibility. Conversely, some employees can experience burnout at faster rates when excluded from caregiving benefits.
The solution: Expand the caregiving benefit. To meet this challenge, CVS expanded the definition of caregiving to provide support and relief to employees who had not previously been included. Consider creating a caregiving category that includes self-care and mental health when refining the scope and cost of the benefit.
Also consider the frequency and allotted time for each employee to take advantage of the benefit. Encourage employees of all life stages to take advantage, whether it's for creativity, self-care or life responsibilities.
3. The challenge: in-office employee bias. The visibility and proximity of in-office employees can result in unconscious favoritism that leads to promotions and advancement opportunities. Because of proximity bias, it's easier for remote team members to go unnoticed, despite their performance outputs. And because remote workers often have caregiving or other life stage demands, this lack of attention could add to the frustration of feeling that their contributions and value are invisible.
The solution: Amplify remote voices. CVS instituted changes to its meeting practices to keep remote employees top of mind. It was intentional about connecting to remote employees at the start of each meeting. Meeting leads prioritized remote employee projects, status updates, ideas and feedback before moving to the in-office staff. They also amplified the remote employee questions and concerns during the meeting, and revisited any outstanding items.
4. The challenge: the frontline worker and corporate divide. It can be difficult to balance tensions and safety concerns between frontline workers who typically have to be on site and corporate office workers who can work remotely. Some management styles may not take into full account the concerns and efforts of those employees who are required to physically interact with the public despite health risks. And when corporate office workers also fall into higher salary bands, this perceived lack of appreciation can produce an equity debate that contributes to high turnover rates.
The solution: HERO Pay. Frontline workers who risk their lives every day needed not only protective equipment, but also the knowledge that their work is valued monetarily. CVS tackled this challenge by providing a salary increase known as HERO Pay. Business leaders need to balance incentive structures and acquisition costs for frontline workers — increasing one could decrease the other — and approach work requirements with empathy and flexibility.
Ashley Powdar is employer content lead for AARP's Financial Resilience team. She works with participants in the organization's Employer Pledge Program to promote the value of a multigenerational workforce. She also assists and reports on issues that affect small business owners.