From Remote to Return: Crafting the Ideal Work Environment for Your Team

Photo showing a black female employee working from home.

From Remote to Return: Crafting the Ideal Work Environment for Your Team

It’s been a period of seismic shifts as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted companies and employees to adapt to work from home (WFH). Now post-pandemic, we have seen a shift back to office work. Some companies have embraced WFH, and others have made a return to full-time office work (RTO) mandatory. But which is better, and is there a middle ground for a more tailored solution? The answer will depend strongly on several factors.

Working from home has a positive impact most of the time, but…

The impact of WFH versus working in the office on employee productivity post-pandemic has been the subject of various studies in recent years, reflecting a mix of outcomes, most indicating a positive impact influenced by multiple factors. A nuanced approach is required, however, because the positive or negative effect on productivity is highly dependent on the type of role worked.

The evidence for a tailored approach

A systematic review published in Sustainability in 2023 analysed 26 studies from 2020 to 2022 and found that the impact of WFH on employee productivity and performance varies significantly depending on the nature of the work, employer and industry characteristics, and home settings.

Some differences that affect the productivity of WFH are:

  • The nature of the work: Researchers at universities are more productive with the WFH model, while lecturers and teachers are less productive because the former has less or no direct involvement with people.
  • The position of the employees: directors, managers, or supervisors have increased productivity with WFH because they are able to convert physical mobility to reach out virtually to supervise more tasks and pay attention to details, while lower-rank employees are less productive.
  • The nature of employee tasks: employees performing collaborative tasks are less productive with WFH.
  • Home capacity to use the Internet and technological resources: higher productivity in technologically favourable homes.
  • Industry: IT, banking and service industries are more productive.
  • Gender: female employees are less productive than their male counterparts.
  • Employee experience: experienced employees are more productive.
  • IT-skill: IT-literate employees had a positive impact on productivity with WFH.

The review highlighted that a majority of studies report a positive impact of WFH on productivity and performance, with some noting no difference or a negative impact. It suggests that technology and IT training improvements could enhance productivity for those adopting WFH models even after the pandemic​​. [1]

Workplace culture is adapting

Research from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research further elucidates the transformation in work patterns due to the pandemic. Before COVID-19, only a small fraction of work was done from home, with it often being stigmatized. During the pandemic, the necessity of WFH removed this stigma despite the challenging conditions. Post-pandemic, it is anticipated that work from home will stabilize at a significantly higher level than pre-pandemic, with firms expecting employees to work from home between one and three days a week. This reflects a broad acceptance that WFH has performed well for many organizations and will continue to be a part of work life. However, the physical office space expected to adapt rather than disappear.

The hybrid workweek

A hybrid workweek can help manage some of the downsides of WFH, including loneliness. In one experiment, workers were happy working from home at first, but after nine months, two-thirds returned to the office, loneliness being a big driver. WFH should be optional; a 2021 study showed that employees want a wide variety of WFH/hybrid options but also that 20% never want to work from home. [2]

Another perspective comes from the World Economic Forum, which discusses the rise of hybrid work models and their effects on productivity. The hybrid model, which combines WFH and office work, is increasingly recognized for its potential to balance the benefits of both setups. This model addresses employees’ diverse needs and preferences, offering flexibility that can lead to better productivity and job satisfaction​​. [3]

Balancing organisational needs with individual productivity

How do employers optimize worker productivity with business demands? Having workers who can work from home and in the office is great, but optimizing for individual productivity is not the same as optimizing for collective productivity. For instance, there are times when collaboration is better in person, and requiring workers to come into the office to do so might be the ideal outcome. If leaders can think about what work demands are truly necessary from their workers for organizational efficiency and then give the rest of that flexibility back to workers to optimize their own productivity then strategies that balance the needs of the business with the benefits of tailored work solutions can be found.

Conclusion: from evaluation to implementation

In conclusion, the post-pandemic work environment is leaning towards a more flexible and hybrid model, where WFH plays a significant role alongside traditional office work. You can optimize productivity and retention with your employees by considering the following:

  • Establish your baseline business needs: how many employees are required on-site or in the office? How often do you do tasks that are more productive in person (collaboration, learning)? Establish what these baselines look like when implemented: requiring one day of in-office work per project to enhance collaboration or requiring one member of sales to be always on site.
  • Adjust flexibility offering based on role. For instance, employees who are more managerial and experienced are more productive when WFH. So give them the option, whereas someone just starting their career would benefit more from the hands-on training and experience of working at the office with peers and immediate supervisors.
  • Improve technological support and requirements to increase work-from-home and office productivity, upgrading home WIFI, team management software, video software and cloud support.
  • Talk to your employees, find out how they work best and periodically re-evaluate work and collaboration practices to improve your team performance and increase retention.

By continuing to evolve work practices, leaders can optimise productivity and performance by leveraging the best aspects of both WFH and office-based work and improving technological support to increase productivity.

This article was written with the help of AI.