2020’S LEGACY OF WORKPLACE FLEXIBILITY
From hybrid work schedules to childcare concerns
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
In 2020, many employers moved quickly to establish remote work arrangements for employees; some adopted rotating work shifts at the traditional workplace; and some adjusted their leave policies. Almost overnight, the employer-employee relationship became more flexible.
Employers now have had time to evaluate and tinker with these and other pandemic-induced moves. As the health situation improves, they’ll be deciding what changes in employee work rules they want to make perm-anent. Research by national brokers suggests that the trend toward more remote workers and other flexible work arrangements will continue to gain momentum.
“Acceleration in new ways of working will be a major priority and trend for 2021,” says John M. Bremen, managing director, human capital and benefits for Willis Towers Watson (WTW). “Our company’s research indicates that in the next three years 61% of organizations could make remote working a permanent policy as its various advantages begin to be realized.”
The findings come from WTW’s 2021 Flexible Work and Rewards Survey (344 companies representing about 5 million employees).
“A number of our surveys suggest that about a third of workers globally will work remotely long-term after the pandemic, which represents a significant increase over pre-pandemic levels,” Bremen adds. “These are overall numbers and will vary significantly by industry. For example, we expect remote work to be far lower in retail, manufacturing or hospitality/travel industries than in financial services or business services.
“The demand for flexibility will continue to grow and support a diversity of styles,” he continues. “We believe that flexible work schedules and the ability to work remotely are essential for organizations that desire a healthy company culture. We knew prior to the pandemic that employees valued choice in where and when they worked, but we learned in 2020 that employees who could make these choices were more engaged, healthier and more productive.
“We also are observing that as employees begin to plan the next stage of their careers post-pandemic, many likely will make decisions about which jobs to take based on the ability to work where and when they want.”
Amy DeVylder Levanat, senior director, human capital and benefits, at Willis Towers Watson, points to further WTW research from 2020, which shows that, in the future, 41% of employees would prefer to work on-site; 38% would prefer hybrid arrangements; and 21% would like to work from home full-time.
“This suggests that the majority of eligible flexible employees seek a tangible and active connection to a physical work location, but a large portion want flexibility in when they work on-site versus remotely. And answers vary considerably by industry,” says Amy DeVylder Levanat.
“Healthy cultures with flexible work do not happen without effort,” she continues. “Leaders and managers must take intentional action to plan effective flexible work strategies, including those that avoid having remote employees feeling isolated, disconnected and disengaged, or those where employees feel the choice to work remotely will have a negative impact on their careers.”
Mercer also has performed recent research that shows solid employer support for an expansion of flexible work arrangements, including remote work. Mercer surveyed 321 employers last fall and found that before the pandemic, less than 4% of them had 50% or more of their employees working remotely. After the pandemic took hold, those with at least half of their employees working remotely had risen to 30%.
It found that about 17% of the employers introduced flex-time (adjusted start and stop times) during the pandemic and expect to continue that offering post-pandemic. About 13% started using alternative shifts or schedules (such as working evenings or weekends) during the pandemic and said they will make the practice permanent after the pandemic.
“The pandemic has made employers realize that they need to put in place more permanent plans for flexible working,” said Mary Ann Sardone, U.S. talent solutions leader at Mercer, speaking at a recent webinar. Looking beyond COVID-19, she said, “It’s hard to imagine going back to the way we used to work. This forced experimentation with remote working is forcing the hands of even the most skeptical organizations as they continue to gain confidence in new ways of virtual working.
“We think many employers will adopt a hybrid model, in which employees split their time between the in-person and remote environment,” said Sardone. “Both employers and employees realize the value of face-to-face collaboration. We are starting to see some early adopters, like Google, where employees work three days in the office and the other days from home.
“Many other employers are starting to examine the different types of work being done throughout the organization to determine how they can maximize flexibility and productivity. So they are adopting a segmented approach rather than one-size-fits-all.
“During 2020 we were able to skate by with people programs designed for the old ways of working,” Sardone stated. “They were never designed to support a flexible workforce at the scale we’ve experienced. In 2021 we anticipate a transformation of those programs and processes.” To adapt to and support a flexible way of working, she predicts “transformation of career management, onboarding and how we deliver in compensation and benefits.”
Employees in Mercer’s study rated their employers high overall in how they have engaged with them during the pandemic; 82% said engagement was at or above pre-COVID levels. Employers overwhelmingly (90%) rated their firm’s productivity at or above pre-COVID levels.
Despite the overall good numbers for employee engagement, women felt less supported by their employers than did men. Female employees ranked seven percentage points lower than males in agreeing with the statement: “My manager is doing the right things to support me during this outbreak.” Women ranked five percentage points lower than men in agreeing that “senior leaders are doing a good job listening to employees’ concerns and feedback during this outbreak.”
One issue to examine in relation to the gender differences in data is childcare. Many studies show that women bear a disproportionate share of childcare and adult caregiving duties. When the pandemic forced the closures of schools and daycare facilities, the problem of work-life balance for families with young children became acute.
“It’s hard to imagine going back to the way we used to work. This forced experimentation with remote working is forcing the hands of even the most skeptical organizations as they continue to gain confidence in new ways of virtual working.”
—Mary Ann Sardone
U.S. Talent Solutions Leader
“Caregiving and leave policies were important even before the pandemic, which amplified and accelerated their importance,” says Bremen of Willis Towers Watson. According to a 2020 survey by WTW, 74% of employers said the support of employees with young and school-aged children was important for their organization, but only 39% reported that their policies were effective.
“Going forward, caregiving leave policies, as well as paid time off (PTO) in general, will be important to both employers and employees,” says Amy DeVylder Levanat, “but so will caregiving support programs that include emotional well-being and behavioral health, access to back-up childcare, back-up childcare days, dependent care flexible spending accounts, and concierge-type services to more easily manage the demands of work and childcare.”
How employers may address child-care concerns through their benefits menu will become clearer in the months and years ahead. Ultimately, whatever makes an employer more competitive in attracting and retaining high-quality employees will guide their decisions as they work with their benefits planners.
For more information:
Willis Towers Watson
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.