Why flexibility over the return to in-person work is crucial

Going back to the workplace doesn't necessarily mean returning to a pre-pandemic setup, and that's all for the best, business professor Catherine Connelly explains.

As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, returning to in-person work is unlikely to mean a return to pre-pandemic ways. And that’s a good thing, says Catherine Connelly, professor of human resources and management at the DeGroote School of Business.

“The pandemic has forced many workplaces to take stock of their policies on how their employees complete their work,” Connelly explains.

“Before COVID, working from home was often a privilege granted to a few select workers like high performers and people in certain jobs that already had a high degree of autonomy and discretion.”

That’s obviously changed.

“Managers have had to adapt and focus on whether the employees’ objectives are being met rather than micromanaging the day-to-day activities of each employee,” Connelly says.

Employees have changed, too, she says. The stress of the pandemic has prompted many people to take stock of their life goals and what is truly important to them.

“Fewer employees are willing to make compromises that harm their own health and well-being or that of their families.”

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Returning to the office full-time is something many people are not willing to accept. There are substantial benefits for employees who can work from home, including reduced commute time and costs.

Home offices can also be quieter and more productive and give people additional time and flexibility to plan their days — everything from childcare and elder care to finding time for exercise, she says.

It has also provided flexibility for some employees, such as people with disabilities, who often deal with inaccessible transit and work areas.

“Organizations that can allow employees to continue to work from home for at least part of the time will benefit from more satisfied and committed employees,” Connelly notes. “During the pandemic, a lot of flexibility was offered, and it would be a shame if these advances were lost.”

However, Connelly makes clear that creating a successful hybrid work environment is about more than working from home.

Organizations should provide opportunities for employees to get to know each other and break down barriers. That can include things like networking and social events, either online or in person.

“By working from home, employees may miss out on serendipitous informal interactions with co-workers. These unplanned conversations about mundane topics are important for building trust, which my research has shown has serious implications for knowledge sharing and hiding,” she says.

Some parents of young children who have experienced many challenges during the pandemic were given extra flexibility out of necessity. There is a danger that workplaces will be too quick to cancel that leeway altogether or assume hybrid arrangements and flexible work hours are sufficient, Connelly warns.

“As much as possible, employees should return to in-person work at their own pace, and with as many safety precautions in place as possible,” she says. “COVID is not over yet and pushing employees to work in ways that feel unsafe is counterproductive.”

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