The news is full of announcements about companies’ post-pandemic policies for employees who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic. Ford foresees a hybrid model. Twitter has told many employees working remotely that they can do so indefinitely. Morgan Stanley plans a “full return” to the office, with some work-from-home options. In short, these plans are all over the map.
Meanwhile, the yearlong, pandemic-induced remote work experiment has had mixed effects on employees. Although many like working from home and want to continue to at least part of the time, a recent Microsoft report found that 54% of employees say they feel overworked, while 39% feel exhausted. One reason for those feelings of exhaustion: The study found that employees are facing a dramatic increase in digital collaboration, including remote meetings, email, chats, and groups working on documents together.
Given these conflicting signals from both companies and workers themselves, how can executives determine optimal policies for their organization’s white-collar employees going forward? As scholars who research flexible work initiatives, we have insights into how to make “hybrid” policies, which blend remote and in-office work, effective over the long haul, without burning out employees.
Before the pandemic, we conducted a five-year, in-depth study of an innovative work redesign approach at a Fortune 500 company that facilitated extensive work from home—but treated remote work as just one element in a broader strategy to craft a better way of working.
One lesson from our research is that shifting to remote work should not be the only focus of work redesign. A policy declaring that people must work remotely, or even one saying they can work whenever and wherever they want, can easily become pressure to work longer hours and be available 24/7—leading to burnout over time.
Two important elements of the initiative we studied were training managers to shift how they approached their roles and helping teams identify and reduce low-value work. Managers received training encouraging them both to express support of employees’ personal lives and to clearly articulate performance goals and expectations, so that they could focus on monitoring results rather than “face time” at the office.
Secondly, structured team discussions helped overloaded employees identify changes they could make as individuals and teams, such as reducing the number of meetings or the number of people required to attend them. This work redesign approach ultimately changed everyday work practices, including increasing the ability to work remotely, while also identifying low-value work that teams can reduce and still hold work hours steady.
Our research team found these changes improved well-being and work/life integration for employees and managers, increased job satisfaction, and benefited the company by reducing the costs associated with turnover among valuable employees. Overall, our study found that for every $1 spent on the work redesign program, the company saw about $1.68 in savings—a healthy return on investment.
But such benefits arise only when employees feel they can choose where and when they work—not by mandating some particular mix of remote and in-office work. It is also critical that managers and coworkers respect workers’ personal and family situations. In other words, the benefits we document come not from a policy allowing remote work per se, but from gaining a sense of control and support.
The post-COVID decisions about what to do next represent a challenge, but also an opportunity. The pandemic has disrupted old patterns, opening up possibilities for not only remote work or more flexible schedules, but for reassessing previously taken-for-granted ways of working.
We expect most employees and managers will prefer some blend of remote and in-office work going forward, as they did in our study. The exact mix may depend on the work being done and the personal lives of the workforce, but working at home exclusively only works well for some employees and roles. However, our research shows that having some say in when, where, and how they work is highly valued by many employees, and can be good for a company’s bottom line.
The work redesign approach deployed in our study did not set up formal policies laying out how much time was expected in the office or requiring individuals to get permission from their managers to work from home. Instead, regular conversations about how people hoped to work and how the team could coordinate to do its best work set the stage for adaptable and customized ways of working.
This is the perfect moment to launch a work redesign initiative like the one we researched—inviting teams to discuss and learn from how they adapted during the pandemic and how they struggled, and to imagine what might work well for them. We’ve created free training resources from our study, including a facilitator’s guide to implementing this kind of work redesign program.
The takeaway from our research is clear: Don’t let this opportunity to redesign work for the better pass your organization by.
Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan distinguished professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight endowed presidential chair in sociology at the University of Minnesota.
They are the authors of Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.
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