- Remote work dilemma. While many employees enjoy the flexibility remote work offers, they worry about its effect on their ability to progress in an organization.
- The hybrid model. Similar to their employees, many leaders have reservations about a fully remote arrangement, which might make some form of hybrid remote work the preferred model for many companies moving forward.
- Build out proper remote work strategies. Organizations can alleviate their employees’ development and career advancement concerns by pinning down remote work policies and procedures and aligning associated strategies around upskilling.
- Keep DEI in mind. Unconscious bias is often exacerbated in a remote or hybrid setting, which, depending on the organization, could have an outsized negative effect on females and people of color.
After a year of remote work brought on by the pandemic, many organizations had grand plans of returning to the office at some point during 2021. Many of those plans were foiled by a continued persistence of coronavirus cases in the United States, which has led to a growing number of companies pivoting to a full-time remote environment for its non-essential workers or utilizing a hybrid model.
Gallup reports that currently 39% of U.S. employees are exclusively remote and 42% work in a hybrid capacity. They anticipate 24% will remain exclusively remote in 2022 and beyond, while the number of hybrid workers will increase to 53% in 2022 and beyond.
While many employees extoll the virtues of remote work because of increased flexibility, better work-life balance and the elimination of a daily commute, others are increasingly skeptical of the effect it might have on their career advancement.
A recent study of 912 full-time U.S. employees by meQuilibrium found that 43% believe in-person work is best for their career advancement. The concern for some is that less natural face-to-face time with superiors could limit the ability to display soft communication and collaboration skills that are often viewed as conducive to leadership capabilities. Another worry for employees who are in larger organizations is simply getting lost in the shuffle, with little opportunity to make an impression without regular in-person access to managers or leaders.
“Most managers are trained to manage and engage with employees in an in-person format,” said Shankar Raman, senior director, health, wealth and careers at Willis Towers Watson. “They have built in biases that are reinforced by external artifacts such as performance management processes that emphasize ‘physically observable behavior’ or career management practices built around in-person exchanges with other employees.”
There could be some symbiosis between employees and managers in this regard, as Gallup notes its research indicates leaders and managers prefer hybrid work and have “considerable hesitation about employees being fully remote.” Thus, this model might lend itself to the best of both worlds for employees who desire the flexibility afforded to them by remote work, but also want to maintain an in-office presence for career advancement and development opportunities.
“There are clearly benefits to working in an office — camaraderie, team building, and cross-functional team collaboration. But there are also benefits to working from home — improved work-life balance, no time wasted commuting, and easier child care management,” said David Powell, president of Prodsocore. “Employers should look to adopt a hybrid solution that captures the positives of both scenarios and minimizes the negatives.”
Raman said organizations must find a solution that works best for them, as hybrid work can have a different definition at different organizations. He added that the best companies are adapting based on employee preference and accommodating various modes of work.
“The most progressive companies are realizing that employee preferences are changing and will drive the future. As such, they are focusing on the principles by which they to manage the workforce, the culture they want to maintain, and the experience they want managers, employees and customers to have,” Raman said. “They are also realizing that different segments need different approaches and are not mandating one way or the other. And, more importantly, they are giving themselves the ability to learn and adapt along the journey.”
Simply providing a hybrid work option for employees, however, will not alleviate career advancement concerns. Many organizations have not adequately built out HR processes and policies to position their employees for success in these arrangements. The meQuilibrium survey found that while most business leaders (66%) said their organization has well-defined hybrid work policies, less than half of employees (47%) agree.
A breakdown in communication and perceived support — through rewards or talent development opportunities — is viewed as a precursor to burnout and retention issues, which is fueling fervent employee movement. The meQuilibrium survey found that employees working at organizations without clear hybrid work guidelines are 60% more likely to look for a new job than those whose employers provide clear guidance.
The Path Forward
Like employees, HR departments and leadership are adapting to the changing work environment, which means some growing pains. One of the growing pains companies are faced with is providing exceptional career development and advancement for their talent.
This might start with investing in HR talent, which a recent WorldatWork Pulse Poll found is lagging, as 34% of organizations are not providing upskilling opportunities to their HR department. More investment in this area from leadership could greatly improve organizational capacity in a remote or hybrid environment, noted Alicia Scott-Wears, compensation content director at WorldatWork.
“Organizations that invest in their employees’ personal and professional development, which allows them to find purpose and reward in their work, are better positioned to achieve the loyalty of top performers that are skilled in the areas the business needs most,” Scott-Wears said. “HR is crucial to business success, yet one-third of respondents are indicating not upskilling is being provided to this crucial function.”
Raman said HR can play a critical roll in developing a new work strategy for remote and hybrid work that aligns with a distributed talent strategy. Through this, organizations can also look at new ways to engage their employees to foster an environment where upskilling and development opportunities are brought to the forefront. This might include creating communities through peer networks and engagement through periodic in-person meetings, he said.
“Having new tools such as instantaneous feedback, frequent connection points, using experiential learning are also going to be important,” Raman said. “Investing in reskilling and skill building activities are also becoming focal points for companies.”
An additional consideration for employers is the how remote work and hybrid work might affect diversity, equity, inclusion and access efforts. Raman noted that unconscious bias is often exacerbated in a remote or hybrid setting, which, depending on the organization, could have an outsized negative effect on females and people of color.
A 2021 report by McKinsey & Company found that women continue to face a broken rung at the first step up to manager, as for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, which means there are fewer women to promote to higher levels. The report found this this gap widens when comparing White men to men of color and a gap also exists between White women and women of color.
This can play out in a remote work environment if leaders aren’t making themselves readily available to all team members, which also has pay equity implications.
“This is a real concern, and the biggest risk is when employers create unintended impacts to pay equity due to decisions they make — albeit with the right intention,” Raman said. “For example, changes to pay when someone works remotely, could exacerbate pay equity issues. During the pandemic, data clearly shows that women, people of color, those in caregiving roles, and minorities were disproportionately impacted.
“Any action could worsen this impact from a pay perspective, if pay equity issues are not considered explicitly in future work and reward strategies.”