RALEIGH – Companies are turning to experts to determine how to set return to office policies that align with worker expectations and won’t hinder their recruiting efforts or employee retention.
At a virtual event earlier today, four leading voices from across the country provided guidance to employers still considering structuring policies and procedures for in-person, office-based work.
“We’ve been attracting and retaining talent, for years, especially in technology,” said Michele Olivier, a professional recruiter who works directly with hiring managers and with job seekers. “As an active recruiter, right now, in accounting, in technology, across industries, I’ve been struggling to fill positions for companies that require in person interviews.”
Many of the questions Olivier is hearing from potential candidates regarding an employer’s health and safety policies pertain to remote work, but there are also questions about policies that would impact in-person work.
Even as the prevalence of the Delta variant in the United States is increasing, candidates are asking more about mask policies, remote or flexible work policies, and whether there are social distancing requirements when working inside an office location, said Olivier.
“Employees feel that if we have to wear masks and have plexiglass dividers that the environment is not actually safe,” said Olivier. And they’re asking—a lot—about remote-based work engagements.
Locally, in the Triangle, ChannelAdvisor transitioned to a fully remote workforce on March 10, 2020, said Beth Segovia, COO, in an interview with WRAL TechWire.
Though the leadership team thought initially the remote work may last two, four, maybe six weeks, said Segovia, they’d encouraged all employees to take any equipment from the office to their home, and to set up remote work stations.
Now, more than a year later, ChannelAdvisor chose to make their flexible work location policy permanent.
The company, which employs some 800 people globally, with headquarters in Morrisville, is requiring vaccinations to work from any of the company’s U.S.-located offices, including headquarters. But it is not requiring all employees to be vaccinated, said Segovia.
“We have taken a stance that we want to encourage vaccinations,” said Segovia. “We want to know the safety level,” she added. “How much risk are we taking bringing people back to the office.”
Now, with the Delta variant spreading across the United States, Segovia and a team are meeting regularly, sometimes daily, to track relevant metrics, and to discuss potential changes to company policies. Recently, said Segovia, they’ve been discussing ways to incentivize employees to get vaccinated.
“We’re openly thinking about incentives,” said Segovia. “We feel responsible to keep our employees safe.”
Still, the company is not going to rethink its flexible work policy, and many employees are thriving in fully-remote-based roles, said Segovia. “There’s not a lot of pressure to open the office to all employees.”
Employers who are choosing to require in person work ought to think twice before establishing that policy, said Olivier, especially if they’re planning to hire new employees or retain their workforce. “It will 100% damage your position in the market,” she noted.
“Why did you go to work-from-home in the first place, and has that situation changed?” Crystal Larsh, MBA, CSM, a project and product manager, leading service delivery teams in the gaming sector suggested that managers and employers ask themselves before establishing policy. “If it hasn’t changed, we shouldn’t even ask the question.”
Larsh, who is based in Austin, Texas, works for a gaming company headquartered in Vancouver. It’s a highly competitive industry, with high demand from employers which are seeking specialized talent. They’d identified an expert, based in Montreal, and extended a job offer. The new employee is thriving in a remote-based role, said Larsh, but if the company were to ask the employee to relocate, they would leave.
Some companies, particularly those who had the flexibility to do so, have sold off or subleased office space, as they’ve moved to more remote-based workers. In the Triangle, for example, IBM and MetLife are both looking to lease tens of thousands of square feet of office space under their control.
An action item employers can take is sourcing feedback from employees. But there are important considerations in structuring such an action, said Kristen Lee Hill, Ph.D., a researcher based in Charleston, SC.
“As an organization, you need to decide whether you are willing to let people return to the office,” said Hill, especially if you’re going to ask for input at all from employees.
“It’s going to burn through trust,” said Hill, “if you put options on a survey that aren’t really even on the table.”
“The best protection for pushback is to have a compelling case from the get-go,” said Hill. “There are a lot of things that are people’s go-to excuses.”
For instance: claims involving a change in productivity. And, even in years where there wasn’t a global pandemic, when schools shut down or went virtual, and schedules and routines were dramatically disrupted, companies just aren’t very good at measuring productivity of employees, said Larsh. “Outside of manufacturing, the only place you can measure productivity is on software development teams,” noted Larsh.
“In my experience, the problems with velocity drops are almost always related to process, people overriding or breaking process, or unforeseen circumstances,” said Larsh. “It is exceedingly rare, and I’ve been doing software projects for 20 years, I’ve only ever talked to three people about performance.”
“What is success, and does that really change with my physical location?” asked Larsh.
Dramatic impact on talent market
“I have not had a single candidate, since the onset of COVID, who has not questioned a need to return to an office,” said Olivier in an interview with WRAL TechWire following the event. “One of my clients is transitioning back to in-person work, for one week a month, in September and October, and we’ve already heard from candidates that they will absolutely not consider that.”
In the Triangle, the talent market is already tight, and mismatched. Companies are recruiting, and they need specific talent. They may not need those workers to physically be in an office environment, said Olivier.
“We’ve already demonstrated that technology didn’t stop with COVID,” said Olivier. “Every sprint that was going on for every major project, still went on, uninterrupted, and pretty seamlessly, because there was no reason for it not to.”
Tech workers, in particular, have been advocating for remote-based work for a long time, said Olivier. It didn’t take the onset of a global pandemic to seek employment where remote-based work or flexible work was feasible, possible, or even expected, it was occurring for long beforehand.
“Candidates don’t need changing, the way I see it, in the technology space,” said Olivier. “Most of the work that I am doing in terms of re-educating, is on the other side of the desk, with my clients, with hiring managers.”
Take that client of Olivier’s, who is seeking highly specialized talent in Silicon Valley, expecting the candidates who accept the role to work in-person from an office for five days a month. Even with Olivier’s help, the client is struggling to try to find someone, within budget, who is based locally, who would be willing to be in an office for five days a month.
“It’s insane,” said Olivier, referencing the competition for talent. The answer for companies is to accept that the talent market has changed, and it’s not enough to provide free beer or donuts, said Olivier.
“Think outside of the box, and begin to acknowledge that you are now asking for something that is a luxury item,” she said.
“The pandemic has changed, fundamentally, how we work,” said Beth Segovia, COO, ChannelAdvisor. “Forever.”
“As we go through the recruitment process, we’re seeing a lot of questions from candidates about our flexible work policies,” said Segovia. “That’s a big part of their decision making.”
ChannelAdvisor, which operates in the world of eCommerce, saw a steady increase in business after the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic, as people moved purchasing online. Their business has increased, and the company has chosen to reinvest money that may otherwise have been spent on real estate assets or on office environment perks into their people, said Segovia. And, with the decision to make the company’s flexible work policy permanent, they’ve changed how they’ve approached recruiting.
“We have a lot of jobs that we’re working to fill, and we don’t have jobs stay open very long, and we’ve been lucky to find really talented folks, and we’re no longer limited to geographic region,” said Segovia.
If companies plan to require in-person, specific time-based work, that time better add value, to the organization, but also to its workers, said Olivier. “What we have heard is that if there is a specific reason, such as an event, or a retreat, then employees would come in, but they’re not willing to be told to come in, just because organizations can tell them to show up in person.”
Still, any requirement to return to work might come with significant risks, said Olivier. “There is so much market pressure for technology to not go back, that it is very difficult to justify a forced return to work policy, in my opinion.”
Retention may become an issue for companies that require a forced return to office policy. Recruiting may be another issue.
“There are a lot of organizations that have decided to remain remote, and they are coming for your staff,” said Olivier.
And there may even be legal concerns, including placing employers in legal jeopardy under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, said Olivier.
“Now that companies have established that they can operate in a fully remote environment, that is not a reasonable accommodation,” said Olivier. “You’d have to work really hard to prove that working remotely is not a reasonable accommodation to require people to return to the office.”