Research Offers Guidance as Employers Plan Workplace Returns

As associations prepare for the post-pandemic workplace, new research can help provide tips on where to focus when it comes to employee well-being and return-to-work planning.

As more Americans get vaccinated and associations make plans to return their staff to offices, looking at some of the research about work during the pandemic can help organizations determine where to shift their human resources focus as they finalize their plans.

A recent report from the ADP Research Institute, “People at Work 2021:A Global Workforce View,” surveyed workers worldwide to see how they fared during the pandemic. One stark finding from the survey is that remote staff are putting in extra hours that they don’t claim on their timesheets. Globally, unpaid overtime has jumped to 9.2 hours a week, up from 7.3 hours last year. In just the U.S., the jump in unpaid overtime is more pronounced, with 9 hours per week in 2021, compared with 4.1 hours per week in 2020.

Angela Hall, an associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, offered some advice for organizations looking to combat concerns over unpaid hours. First, she said it’s important to ensure non-exempt, or hourly, employees are following the law with regard to reporting hours worked. Second, organizations should discourage all employees—exempt or non-exempt—from overworking.

“If employees continue to work all the time, with no break, especially in this pandemic, which is inherently stressful, they are more likely to burn out,” Hall said. “Employers can do things like adopt policies that say you don’t have to return emails after a certain time or that the weekends can be free from responding to email. Policies like those allow the employee to disengage.”

Hall noted that while encouraging employees not to overwork is important, so is flexibility. She said research she’d worked on showed staff “weren’t as upset by having to do work off hours or after hours, because they felt it was a way to control their lives better and have better work-life balance.” The ADP Research Institute study found that flexibility was prized, while uneven policies around workplace flexibility created more stress.

“Unfortunately, a significant proportion—18 percent of parents and 25 percent of non-parents—say their managers actually allow less flexibility than that which the company has set out,” the report said. “Clearly, employers and HR teams have a role to play here in ensuring policies are consistently applied by managers and implemented as intended.”

Hall added that HR professionals should work on ensuring flexibility, as it helps improve the workplace. Those who experienced flexibility as part of getting work-life balance, “had higher job satisfaction, lower job tensions, felt less depressed, and engaged in more work efforts,” Hall said.

One good finding from the ADP Research Institute is that staff are generally optimistic about the workplace over the next three to five years. For North American workers, 77 percent felt optimistic, compared to 71 percent in Europe, 85 percent in Latin America, and 90 percent in the Asia-Pacific-Australia corridor. According to the report, “workers were more inclined to think COVID-19 would have a positive rather than a negative impact, particularly in terms of obtaining greater flexibility at work and developing their skills.”

While optimism is good, a new report from the Limeade Institute, “Employee Care: Defining the New Normal,” found that while employers are eager to return to their offices, employees are not.

According to the report, 71 percent of employees say they are anxious about returning to work because of concerns for lack of flexibility, and 56 percent said their organization didn’t ask for feedback on return-to-work policies or procedures.

As I wrote about last week, better listening can help improve the workplace and make employees feel heard. In addition to listening, organizations hoping to thrive will need to maintain some of the flexibility they added during the pandemic.

“If you say: ‘You’re going to have to be 40 hours a week, minimum, in front of your computer 8-to-5,’ your best talent is not going to accept that,” Hall said. “If you go into it with that kind of mindset, you’re going to alienate a lot of your employees.”

She recommends being as flexible as you can, transitioning back gradually, and if possible, allowing a hybrid workplace where people can telecommute some days of the week. For positions that don’t allow remote options, employees also “have to be flexible,” Hall said.

What issues is your office looking to address as staff prepares to return to work? Share in the comments.

(SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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