Study: Employers are not communicating post-pandemic workplace plans

Although employees overwhelmingly want flexible working arrangements, 35% of companies want all staff in the office full time when COVID-19 ends, according to EY.

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While 79% of companies intend to make moderate to extensive changes to enable hybrid work, only 40% of global employers have communicated any plans for the post-COVID-19 pandemic workplace, according to a new study. This lack of clarity is fueling a disconnect with employees who are seeking permanent flexible working arrangements, according to the EY Work Reimagined Employer Survey 2021.

The survey, conducted in June and July, canvassed more than 1,000 business leaders across nine countries and 25 industry sectors. It examined their views on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace, including their perspectives on the risks and opportunities of hybrid working. The findings were then compared with the results of the recent EY Work Reimagined Employee Survey 2021, the firm said.

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One of the most notable findings from the employee study was that more than half (54%) of global respondents said they would consider leaving their job post-pandemic if they were not given some form of flexibility in when and where they work. The employee study was conducted in March and received over 16,000 responses from 16 countries, the majority coming from millennials, EY said.

The employer findings survey indicates that companies' plans reflect the views of 90% of employees, who said they want flexibility in when and where they work according to the employer survey. However, the fact that only 40% have communicated these plans leaves employees hanging in the balance on crucial issues such as flexibility, culture and productivity.

The remaining employer respondents said they are either still planning or waiting to communicate any decisions about their new ways of working—which will in part, reflect the very different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, the EY employer survey found.

"Employers have heard loud and clear that employees are demanding flexibility in the post-pandemic working world,'' said Liz Fealy, EY global people advisory services deputy leader and workforce advisory leader, in a statement. "The biggest danger facing most employers is that they fail to provide clarity around their hybrid work and return to office plans. Many organizations seem to have commitment issues around flexible working–they know they need to adapt but are holding back on implementing any firm plans."

Many studies have shown that employees are prepared to quit if they don't get the flexibility they need and Fealy noted that employers who fail to move with the times do risk losing their people.

"Organizations that want to flourish need to ensure that their plans are well defined and communicated and that they balance business and employee priorities in refining these plans to help create a win-win for the business and the workforce."

Despite the overwhelming recognition of the importance of flexible working, the survey reveals that 35% of employer respondents want all of their employees to return to the office full-time post-pandemic, the study found. While some of these employers are in industries that require on-site presence, there are other organizations that can work virtually, but want it to happen in person, the EY study said.

Further, 51% of employer respondents said that they want to decrease business travel post-pandemic, but 66% of employee respondents say they want it to resume.

On key issues relating to culture and productivity, there are also notable disconnects. Almost three-quarters (72%) of employer respondents said they believe that workplace culture has improved since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 48% of employee respondents. Meanwhile, 82% of employer respondents believe productivity can now be measured from anywhere, compared to 67% of employee respondents.

Employers have myriad risks to contend with

Employers who participated in the survey were also asked about risks beyond physical health that they believe may come with the shift toward hybrid working. Almost half (45%) say one of the biggest risks will be their ability to establish fairness and equity among employees when some jobs require a fixed schedule or location, creating a "have and have not" dynamic based on roles.

How to retain talent and offer flexibility was a key concern for 43% of employer respondents, and 40% pointed to hybrid working as a risk to culture, creativity and collaboration.  

Other risks identified include developing next-generation talent (39%), establishing and measuring productivity (36%), upskilling/reskilling employees for new ways of working (30%), adopting new technologies to support hybrid working (28%), supporting employee well-being (28%)

In making these preparations, workplace safety is also a major consideration. The survey revealed that 43% will require staff to be fully vaccinated before returning to the office. A similar proportion (42%) plan to incentivize vaccination, for example, through paid time off for employees, subject to legislative requirements.

"These various and complex risks make it harder for employers to define their back-to-office plans for a diverse workforce,'' Fealy observed. This can "leave many exposed to the possibility that employees will move to companies where flexibility is clearly implemented."

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By Esther Shein

Esther Shein is a longtime freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in several online and print publications. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Datamation, a managing editor at BYTE, and a senior writer at eWeek (formerly PC Week)...