Corporate America is reopening its offices as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.
But many workers won’t be there.
Seventy-two percent of companies say employees will be able to return to the workplace over the next five months, with 50% reopening between August and October, according to a Conference Board survey of 231 human resource leaders conducted April 5-16. The results were provided exclusively to USA TODAY.
Yet 79% of the mostly large businesses say 10% or more of their employees will be able to work remotely at least three days a week a year after pandemic subsides. That compares with 26% of firms that permitted staffers to primarily work from home before the health crisis.
Nearly nine in 10 of the HR executives surveyed say they’re also willing to hire remote employees around the country or globe in some form, compared with about half before the outbreak.
Overall, the survey depicts an American workplace that will be transformed for the longer term as a result of the pandemic.
Remote work is here to say
“Remote work is really going to stay here,” says Frank Steemers, senior economist for the Conference Board. It’s “probably going to be one of the main organizational legacies of the pandemic.”
Employers are embracing teleworking at least in part because they’re reporting that productivity has increased during the crisis, the survey shows, though the higher output is taking a toll on the mental health and well-being of workers.
“I think the mental health issue will be another huge impact of COVID,” says Robin Erickson, principal researcher in Human Capital for the Conference Board.
Further fueling the telecommuting movement are nationwide worker shortages that are giving employees more leverage over how and where they work. That’s also forcing companies to hunt for staffers who will have the flexibility to toil from wherever they happen to be — across the country and even the world. A large share of the companies surveyed say they’re struggling to find and retain qualified workers.
Working harder from home
Some companies are all in on remote work. Thirty-eight percent of the organizations surveyed said 40% or more of their employees will chiefly work from home a year after COVID fades, meaning over the long term. The figure has doubled since the Conference Board’s April 2020 survey. Before the pandemic, just 5% of businesses allowed that many staffers to telework.
Another 15% of companies say 10% to 20% of employees will be able to work remotely and 26% expect 20% to 40% of workers to telecommute.
Executives are being more flexible at least in part because they increasingly believe remote workers have been cranking out more products and services. Fifty-nine percent of the firms surveyed say productivity has risen during the pandemic, up from 47% in September and just 23% at the start of the outbreak in April 2020.
A Conference Board report on the survey, titled “The Reimagined Workplace A Year Later,” says it’s unclear if the higher productivity can be traced to working from home – which cuts out commuting and other tasks – or the economic crisis, which has heightened employees’ sense of urgency.
But the greater output has a cost. Seventy-six percent of the companies polled reported an increased number of employees who say they’re burned out, up from 42% in September. And 55% said staffers’ work-life balance has eroded, up from 46% in September.
“This level of performance is likely unsustainable, and the impact on worker well-being has yet to be fully realized,” the report says.
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Carol Galle, CEO of Detroit-based Special D Events — which coordinates corporate trade shows, conferences and other gatherings — says sales dwindled to near nothing early in the pandemic, forcing her to cut more than half of her 19 staffers and focus on virtual events. But she says in-person events are starting to surge back, along with revenue.
“We’re all working more hours,” she says, noting the firm has permanently switched her staff to remote work. “I think people are now using their commute time” to work.
The typical workday in her industry can be jampacked and stressful, particularly as a corporate event draws closer, with planners taking pains to be available for clients, Galle says.
“My people are on all day,” she says. “They can work whatever hours they want. People are using email, texting after hours, everybody’s watching the phone.”
Asked about employee burnout, Galle says, “I worry about that.”
Hiring employees to work anywhere
At the same time, companies are using their more liberal telecommuting policies to expand their searches for new hires.
Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed say they’re willing to hire remote employees to some extent, up from 52% before the pandemic. Fifty-five percent say they’ll bring on report employees who can occasionally come into the office. Another 25% say they’ll hire full-time remote workers anywhere in the U.S. and 7% will do so worldwide.
The strategy is helping firms cope with widespread worker shortages as the economy roars back even while many employees may prefer to stay on enhanced unemployment benefits or are caring for sick relatives or children who are distance-learning from home.
Eighty-percent of the industrial and other blue-collar companies surveyed by the Conference Board, and 60% of white-collar firms, say it’s very or somewhat difficult to find qualified workers. Those figures are up from 74% and 59%, respectively, before the pandemic.
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And many more firms are feeling a dire crunch. Twenty-five percent of the blue-collar companies and 9% of the professional firms surveyed said it was very difficult to find qualified workers, up from 4% and 3%, respectively, before the outbreak. Labor shortages were blamed for April’s 266,000 job gains, well below the nearly 1 million expected, and they’re creating uncertainty over the May payroll totals, which the Labor Department is set to release Friday.
Businesses are also struggling to hold onto the employees they have. Forty-nine percent of the blue-collar companies and 28% of the white-collar firms polled said it’s very or somewhat difficult to retain workers, up from 30% and 23%, respectively, before the crisis.
‘Whole new world’
The teleworking shift has been a boon for San Jose, California-based adHere, which generates marketing leads for colleges’ online courses. Before the pandemic, the company was consistently losing out to Facebook, Google and other local tech giants in the competition for software developers, says company President Ruben Resendez. As a result, it took Resendez four to five months to fill an opening.
But since adHere adopted a work from home policy last year, Resendez has added seven employees to his staff of 12 – in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Virginia, Colorado and Maine. Since they’re in less costly states, he can pay an average salary of about $80,000, compared to $120,000 in San Jose.
The new staffers helped grow revenue from $12 million in 2019 to $18 million last year as online learning thrived during the pandemic, Resendez says.
“It’s been pretty lucrative,” he says. “We’re excited for the whole new world that has opened up to us.”
Galle is also hiring remotely as she struggles to fill two or three openings for event planners and two slots for marketing and finance executives. The new landscape has been mixed, she says. She has a promising candidate in another state for a planner opening. But because of the remote hiring trend, a prominent West Coast corporate events company wrested away one of her own planners.
So is the shift a net positive for her firm?
“The jury is still out,” she says. ”You can resign from one company and start work at another without ever leaving your home office.”