by Erik Steffensen

Be sure to put your employees’ needs at the heart of your decision.

As the pandemic forced companies into a virtual environment, many began to take a closer look at their post-pandemic workplace. Twitter and Square, who both announced that nearly all their employees will have the option to work from home permanently, have now been joined by Facebook, which revealed plans to shift as much as half of its more than 45,000 employees to remote work over the next decade. The sum of these moves means many employees could end up working remotely for the duration of their tenure with these companies – whether they signed up for it or not.

Companies like GitHub, Zapier and Automattic have been virtual since their inception, setting the expectation among their employees that they signed up to work for a virtual company. Yet, as the business world rethinks the future of work, many may be leaping to all-virtual workplaces without much consideration for the needs or desires of their employees. If you’re thinking about a move to a predominantly remote workforce, following are key considerations aimed at putting your employees at the heart of your decision.

Consider Your Employee Expectations

To say that employees don’t need to be in an office overlooks a few key things.

First, remember employees joined your company for a variety of reasons that may likely have included location, cultural fit, workspaces, professional networking and social opportunities, and amenities. Taking away space your teams leverage for camaraderie or other needs is essentially changing the terms and conditions your people chose when they joined your company.

Second, remember that employees are making any number of herculean sacrifices to keep their jobs right now. Equating those sacrifices to eliminating offices, collecting real estate savings and calling it a good long-term move is a mistake. Signing up to work for a company that was partly or fully virtual from the outset is far different from going to work for a company and having your office key yanked due to a pandemic. Companies who eliminate office space are essentially shifting the cost of space to their employees. Despite offsetting factors like convenience and elimination of commuting costs, many employees will feel this as a loss of benefits or compensation if not re-balanced in other ways.

Consider Your Employees’ Home Office Situations

From an employee experience perspective, don’t assume everyone has a dedicated workspace or a home life conducive to productivity and virtual engagement. An employee working for a Wall Street firm who has rented a micro apartment a few blocks from the office and uses an IKEA mini table next to their bed as a desk is now dedicating their 10 square feet of personal space to a company that previously gave them a workspace larger than their apartment, with free coffee or snacks. Or, imagine an employee who lives in a multigenerational household with infants or aging parents, or who cohabitates with several roommates and has challenges with ineffective workspaces. These employees find themselves in a very unworkable situation.

Consider the Neurodiversity and Well-Being of Your Employees

Offices offer choice when it comes to level of energy, quiet spaces, personal interactions, or separation of work from home life. Remote work offers just one environment, which may be detrimental to the health of some. For others, the isolation of working from home, especially on a long-term basis, can exacerbate or deepen safety, mental health and productivity issues. You may also have members of your workforce who are among the millions challenged by cognitive or executive functioning disorders who depend on the structure that comes with working onsite in order perform at their best.

Consider Your Culture

The most successful companies understand that their organizational culture and employment experience is a competitive advantage. It would be foolhardy to assume that transitioning post-pandemic into a 100% virtual environment would not disrupt that culture. Much of the best-in-class organizational culture we enjoy or aspire to is deeply rooted in having in-person exchanges with coworkers and engaging in workplace-based communities of interest. This is especially true for younger generations in the workforce who place a high value on finding community at work or older employees who have built generations-long relationships through connections found in the workplace. The loss of in-person connections will undoubtedly impact organizational culture, especially if not managed with intentional optimization efforts.

Consider Equity

There is also an equity component that must be considered if you’re contemplating a transition to a predominantly remote workforce. A physical office can potentially offset, enabling each person to be their best, regardless of their home size or condition, neighborhood, economic status, or home and personal life dynamics. Remote work assumes an economic capability that facilitates productive work from home such as additional private space, ergonomic work tools, and reliable high-speed connectivity. This assumption creates an implicit bias in favor of employees who have all these items in easy economic reach. You may be impeding your brightest talent without realizing you are doing so.

The Bottom Line

With planning underway for post-pandemic work scenarios, some companies who haven’t considered flex or remote work may now embrace it. Whatever path your organization chooses, re-examine your rationale for considering remote work. Are your assumptions about the benefits reasonable, and have you holistically considered the costs? What are your values as a company, and how can you best uphold your values while moving into a different future? As you explore options, be sure to take an employee-centered and functional approach. The quick cost win could end up costing you in human capital once the crisis is over.