How companies are adapting to office life after remote work

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw employees all over the world working from home – often with a measurable increase in productivity. Now, with lockdowns and restrictions easing, workplaces are slowly opening up – but will it be business as usual in the office?

According to a recent survey by Gartner business consultants, the number of workers in the U.S. working from home doubled to 60% when the pandemic hit, and it’s estimated that nearly 50% of employees will work from home at least some of the time after the so-called “great re-opening.”

In many companies, contrary to accepted notions about employees slacking off when working from home, productivity actually improved. The unintended experiment in mass-scale remote work shattered one of the most durable myths about the workforce: that you can’t trust employees to do their work if you can’t see them. Indeed, according to Gartner, more employees go above and beyond at work when organizations give them a choice over where, when and how much they work.

Scott McInnes, founder and director of consultant firm Inspiring Change, which counts among their clients Danske Bank and Metzler, says this information is vital for the future: “Over the past 15 months, we’ve realized that we can work this way, that trust was the biggest barrier by far to remote working. We’ve learned that work is something you do, not somewhere you go.”

Productivity anywhere – and everywhere?

And this idea has quickly gained traction. Recent research by Accenture found that 63% of high-growth companies have already adopted a “productivity anywhere” workforce model.

Nevertheless, for some, full remote working can be isolating and contribute to stress, and even their affect mental health and functioning. People may also feel that work has infiltrated their entire life, and this can lead to burnout. They may also suspect that out of sight means out of mind, and they may be passed over for promotion.


Percentage of workers in the U.S. working from home when the pandemic hit – double the previous figure


Percentage of high-growth companies that have adopted a “productivity anywhere” workforce model

This is where hybrid working comes in. It allows people to strike a balance: to have the ease and flexibility of working from home but also the opportunity to meet colleagues and team leaders in person and escape their bedrooms, kitchen tables and home offices.

Accenture’s recent report, The Future of Work Study 2021, for which they surveyed more than 9,000 workers around the world, revealed that those who had a hybrid work model during the COVID-19 lockdowns had better mental health, stronger work relationships and were more likely to feel better off as a result of working for their organizations. They also experienced less burnout than those who worked either entirely on site or entirely remotely.

Hybrid model for flexibility

So, what strategies are the leading global companies employing for the great return? Twitter announced at the beginning of lockdown that employees can work remotely forever if they want to and have stuck to that. Google and Microsoft also ordered all employees to work from home at the start of the pandemic but are now slowly bringing people back into the workplace for at least some of the time. Both have said they will adopt a hybrid model going forward. Google have, for example, recently approved 85% of some 10,000 employee requests to work remotely or transfer to a new office.

Spotify is transitioning to a permanent flexible-work model with its Work From Anywhere  policy, which will allow its 6,550 employees all over the world choose how they want to work – whether in an office, remotely, or at a co-working space for which the company will pay a subscription.

With the easing of the lockdown, customer relationship management (CRM) company Salesforce has begun to open up, slowly and carefully. But their re-opening strategy, Success from Anywhere, is also based on allowing employees to work from wherever they want to. “It’s about succeeding together in a human-centered, digital-first environment. Everyone can finally work where, when and how they’ll make the most impact,” says Brent Hyder, the company’s President and Chief People Officer. 

Back to office

Some firms, however, are taking a more traditional approach. Banking giant Morgan Stanley have ordered their New York employees to return to the office by September 6 (U.S. Labor Day) at the latest. The CEO, James Gorman, wasn’t mincing his words, either, telling employees: “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.”

JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, too, have called their people back, with Goldman CEO David Solomon called remote work an “aberration” and “not conducive to productivity.” Both firms seem unconcerned about potentially losing staff as a result of insisting that they return to the office.

It does seem likely that in the future many firms will adopt a hybrid or flexible working model. Accenture’s study showed that most people – 83% – would prefer this system. And, says McInnes, “There’s lots of studies out there saying that between 40% and 50% of people are going to quit their jobs in the next 18 months because maybe they don’t have the work ethic in their organization that they want, that matches their newly understood lifestyle.”

Flexibility and adaptability are crucial

But McInnes points out that for companies the changes should go far beyond whether employees are remote or on-site or a mixture of both. The business environment is likely to remain highly disruptive for some time, and the companies that survive will be the ones who remain flexible and adaptable in all kinds of ways.

DHL Consulting has been adapting to the experience gathered during the lockdown. “Overall, we’re open to change,” says Sabine Mueller , CEO, DHL Consulting. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that flexibility is key.” After taking an employee survey, which revealed that 79% described their experiences of remote work as “great” or “pretty great,” they’ve been experimenting with several options. “For example, while most of our work can be done online, some things work better face to face. For us, the future is hybrid.”

McInnes echoes this sentiment. “This isn’t just about where we do our work, it’s about the work that we do, it’s about how we run our businesses, it’s our offers to clients, it’s where we source our talent – it’s everything,” he says. “I think the one thing the pandemic has done is flatten the hierarchy. We’ve seen inside CEO’s homes [on Zoom, Skype, etc.], and their dogs have walked past and their kids have climbed onto their laps, and it has really humanized people.”


Percentage of people expected to quit their jobs in the next 18 months because maybe they don’t have the work ethic in their organization that they want, according to a number of studies


Percentage of employees that would prefer a hybrid or flexible working model, according to Accenture study

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Steps to successful hybrid working

McInnes offers three practical steps business leaders can take in order to successfully negotiate the coming changes to the business environment. “Number one is asking people what they want. Employee voice is such a driver of employee engagement that for a CEO/senior team to essentially sit in an ivory tower and decide ‘this is what we’re going to do’ is insane.”

Secondly, he says: “Have a really clear and compelling purpose and vision for the organization. Make sure there are leaders who can communicate that to workers and bring it to life for their teams in a way that makes sense, and that everybody knows week-to-week and month-to month what their objectives are and what’s expected of them in their job.”

His third piece of advice is to empower your team leaders: “Bring your leaders across the organization into the tent. They’re going to be absolutely key to organizational success. They are the ones who are calculating and contextualizing strategy and objectives and they’re the ones who are going to ensure that flexible working works.”

The good news at DHL Express, says Mike Parra , CEO, DHL Express Americas, “is that we will roll out a plan – customized by country – to have eligible employees work 10%-50% of the time in a virtual setting from home.” This means a constant state of evolution, and not just regarding existing employees. “We have to be mindful of how we can continue to attract top talent, as the demand for flexible work arrangements will continue to rise among those in the employment pool.”

Looking forward, McInnes says, “I think organizations who want to attract the best talent are going to have to think about what they offer and what their employee proposition looks like in terms of their working model.” — Cathy Dillon

Future of work at DHL

Mike Parra, CEO, DHL Express Americas

What we’ve learned over the past year is that many of our employees who don’t need to be physically present in a facility have truly enjoyed the flexibility and convenience of working from home. They’ve seen it as a huge benefit, and many have reported improvements in productivity and overall satisfaction, enjoying a better work-life balance by being closer to their families. At the same time, we have teams working from home that have been eager to return to the workplace to be with their DHL family (myself included), and to socialize and collaborate once again with their colleagues.  The good news is that we are developing a plan that accommodates both scenarios. So, when the time is right, we will roll out a plan (customized by country) to have eligible employees work 10%-50% of the time in a virtual setting from home.  

We recognize that the workplace is in a constant state of evolution. So we not only have to be a great place to work for existing employees, but also be mindful of how we can continue to attract top talent, as the demand for flexible work arrangements will continue to rise among those in the employment pool.  

Sabine Mueller, CEO, DHL Consulting

To plan the future of work at DHL Consulting, we first asked our people what they thought, and the results were clear: 79% of our employees described their experiences working from home as “great” or “pretty great.” We’ve observed that people appreciate the ability to work flexibly, and we trust them to do so. For us, the future is hybrid. Team members can choose whether to work from the office or home, and we’re experimenting with remote work from anywhere. So far, a hybrid working model has worked well for us; we know this because we consistently measure our success and regularly collect feedback from our customers and our employees.

We’re also investing in the technology, tools and structure to make hybrid work a success. For example, while most of our work can be done online, some things work better face to face. We call these Moments that Matter; they include things like onboarding new joiners and promotion celebrations. These moments are defined, and we have dedicated days where we all meet in the office to observe them. Furthermore, our teams decide  internally and with customers on in-person, project-related events such as project kick-offs, client workshops, brainstorming sessions and team-building events. Overall, we’re open to change. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that flexibility is key. As long as we have the structures that enable us to do what’s important in our team, we’re embracing a new, flexible way of working for the future.

Published: September 2021

Image: Danae Diaz for Delivered.; iStock; DHL

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