Before March 2020, many HR professionals and hiring managers said a wide range of jobs simply couldn’t be performed off-site. Today, many of these same people are taking back their words.
The pandemic has taught us that a wide range of jobs actually can be performed remotely, opening up new opportunities for both employers and employees—and signaling a sea shift in considerations related to work/life balance.
Three key areas of potential impact are:
- Taking time off: Will employees take less time off when working from home?
- Working during time off: Are employees more subject to burnout when working from home because they literally “live where they work”?
- Distractions: Are employees more likely to be distracted and drawn away from their real work to focus on “personal stuff” while working from home?
We asked for input from HR professionals and hiring managers to get a sense of what they are seeing and what they expect the future to hold.
Taking Time Off
Jessica Nguyen, Principal HR Business Partner at Paycor, says initially, employees took less time off, canceling their prescheduled paid time off (PTO) or simply not requesting time off during the early months of the pandemic for good reason—they simply “couldn’t go anywhere anyway.” Or, she says, some were holding onto their PTO in the hopes they would be able to use it later in the year during 2020.
But now, Nguyen says, “As our associates have started to become more comfortable in this new work environment, they are definitely starting to take advantage of those days off.” How they’re using their PTO is changing, though, she says. “Rather than associates taking their PTO for large trips they are using them for mental health days and staycations.”
Nate Tsang, founder and CEO of WallStreetZen, says he’s also seeing a shift in how employees are choosing to take time off. “Employees are more apt to take a few recurring Fridays off than they are to take a longer single vacation,” he says. “Part of this is related to quarantine, but some people simply appreciate a few three-day weekends for shorter trips rather than the lengthier alternative. I know I do.”
Working During ‘Time Off’
The potential for employees to work more during their “time off” is certainly an issue plaguing some during the pandemic. Nguyen says, though, that this is more of an issue with exempt staff. “Many of our exempt associates are finding themselves getting pulled back into work on their days off,” she says. “It’s more challenging for the associates to fully disconnect when they are still physically in their home/office.”
Nonexempt associates are not working during their time off, Nguyen notes, “but we have noticed that many of them are volunteering to work overtime or cancel their days off more than what we would have seen before the pandemic.”
Dealing with Distractions
While Nguyen says she doesn’t necessarily feel that employees are spending more time at home working on personal things rather than their work responsibilities, she does feel that distractions can be an issue. “There is no longer that clear division between work and personal life,” she notes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and her company is offering employees opportunities to find a better work/life balance to deal with both personal and professional responsibilities.
For instance, Nguyen says, “Many of our associates have been able to find a really healthy balance and flexibility that has allowed them to take those breaks during the day to do things like a quick load of laundry or get caught up on dishes, and still make sure that they are getting their work completed for the day.”
The lines between work and personal life are becoming more blurred. “As we become more comfortable in this new virtual world,” Nguyen says, “we’re evolving to find better and healthier ways to have that necessary balance.”
This has been largely a good thing for both employees and employers, agrees Brenda Stanton, Vice President of Keystone Partners. “In addition to the pandemic resulting in employee burnout, it has also provided many individuals time to reflect on what is most important to them,” she says. “With the absence of commutes, employees are finding additional time to do things they didn’t have time for before. The added time at home has also provided more time to spend with family and the opportunity to participate in events they may have missed due to being at the office or while traveling for work.”
Both employees and the organizations they work for are learning that it’s not time put in that matters most but rather the output of that time and how it contributes to organizational goals.
A Shifting Focus: From Time Put In to a Focus on Output
Remote work is likely to continue for many types of positions across a wide range of organizations. As it does, companies are finding new ways to consider employee productivity and measure and monitor performance. It’s becoming more about output than time put in.
For instance, Mary Alice Pizana, HR Manager with Herrman and Herrman PLLC, says, “Our marketing department switching from working in-office to a hybrid office has changed much of our team’s work-life balance. As a result, we began setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure our team member’s performance working remotely.”
Adaptability is key, says Tsang. “Focus on a few key metrics like site traffic, new customers, DA [domain authority] scores, or what have you to make sure the results are coming in, then build your work process around that.” He adds, “Don’t feel as though your company ‘needs’ to be a certain way. From here on out, every workplace will be much more unique.”
Greg Pryor, Senior Vice President and people and performance evangelist at Workday, says he believes hybrid work has amplified and accelerated two trends that were already in motion before the pandemic:
- Increased flexibility, focus, trust, and autonomy that has led to an increase in personal and organizational productivity; and
- The blurring of work/life lines in an increasingly digital and distributed work space, which has brought to light new challenges like increased fatigue.
Moving forward, says Pryor, “I believe there is a tremendous opportunity for organizations to take the positive lessons learned and minimize the unintended fatigue.”
And a New Mandate to Meet Employee Work/Life Balance Needs
The genie is out of the bottle to a large degree now that employees have gotten a taste of what it’s like to work from home and have more flexibility in terms of work/life balance and more control over their time and how they spend it.
“Many employees who appreciate the lack of commuting are drawing a hard line on retaining schedule flexibility associated with working from home,” says Stanton. “If they are required to go back to the office full-time without a hybrid option, some employees may be looking for opportunities elsewhere, leading to attrition and possible loss of valued talent.”
It’s important for employers to recognize these shifting needs and the potential—both positive and negative—to impact their ability to attract and retain top talent now and in a post-pandemic future.