The race is on: What does the research say?

From a business perspective, every now and then a unique event or experience comes along that disrupts industries and ways of doing business like never before — COVID-19 fits that bill.

We are beginning to see what will become volumes of research coming forth regarding the permanent (and not so permanent) changes triggered by the pandemic.

As we start to see more widespread distribution of vaccines, we begin the process of digesting what changes during COVID will be with us permanently and what changes will likely disappear as quickly as they arrived over one year ago.

Being able to differentiate between these will become critical components of establishing a long-term viable business model for any organization.

Thinking about remote work and the ability for some to work remotely gets broadened perhaps by having employees not only working locally remote, but also from virtually any corner of the world.

Is this likely to remain? The research is beginning to show that increased flexibility is likely to remain but that many of the cultural and the social benefits of the workplace suffered during the pandemic.

Harvard Business Review recently published some compelling research by Baym, Larson and Martin (2021). Some key takeaways include: Social capital, the ability to benefit from colleagues around you suffered during the pandemic.

It not only helps the employee feel connected and part of a larger team of resources, but employers also benefit from employees social capital in the form of information flow, energized thinking and new ideas that contribute to lower absenteeism, lower turnover and better organizational performance.

Baym et al. contends that while remote employees attended more online meetings than before, they also felt more isolated and less connected to the workplace and their colleagues.

Removing the ability to bump into a wide variety of colleagues at the office also created more isolated conversations with department co-workers and managers only which, as a result, led to silos of responsibility being rebuilt after years of intentional efforts by many organizations to create a horizontal integration among all departments.

Another recent study by Makarius, Larson, and Vroman (2021) in Harvard Business Review asked the question of what the future of the workplace will look like.

As we might expect, the results were mixed. In large part the options of returning to work either full-time, a hybrid approach or full remote work was driven by several key considerations:

• Nature of the work performed by the employee. Independent tasks vs. collaborative tasks.

• Tenure of the staff. Newer employees or those recently promoted typically benefit from time with managers and colleagues to build relationships and gain new knowledge.

• Individual preferences. Some individuals may or may not be suited for routine work from home situations. (These barriers could be personal preference, lack of technology or inability to maintain focus on, work from the home environment.

• Work from home situations allow the organization to recruit talent across the United States.

Challenges associated with distant work from home employees continue to include cultural assimilation, feeling deeply connected to the organization and well-defined social interactions to connect all workers onsite and remote for discussions, dialogue and team building.

Finally, Teodorovicz, Sadun, Kun and Shaer in Harvard Business Review (2021) speculated on work from home effectiveness in managers and traditional employees.

Overwhelmingly, work from home employees found they had a drastic reduction in commuting time and an increase in time spent in work/and or personal activities. As Teodorovicz et al. note, however, the reallocation of time was very different between managers and employees.

Most managers used the extra time gained from a lack of commuting to more time spent in meetings, and possibly to recoup some of the extemporaneous interactions that typically happen in the office.

Whether to go to exclusively work from home, a hybrid or entirely back to the office, there are a variety of considerations organizations must balance.

Some are exclusively oriented around the desires and wishes of the employee, and others are around larger issues associated with remaining productive, type of work being performed, tenure, managerial responsibilities and maintaining strong social and cultural connections to the organization.

There is little doubt the early research shows mixed results. Employers likely will see a greater number of work from home employees seeking to maintain some workstyle flexibility moving forward.

But along with the value of less commute time and work/life balance, work from home can impact performance due to sometimes nearly unavoidable home disruptions and even the long-term mental and physical health of some individuals from longer-term periods of physical isolation from colleagues.

Whichever way an organization decides to go, it needs to make sense for the values, vision and mission of the organization, its employees and, just as importantly, the customer’s being served.

Like most areas of business, a one size fits all approach rarely works. The unique employee solutions will likely be based on the unique needs of every organization.