No one could predict how the work from home movement would unfold as it became the standard for most organizations nearly overnight in March. Some thought it would help to unleash innovation while others feared it would hamper productivity and collaboration. We began zooming colleagues into our living rooms. Some thrived working from their new makeshift desks while others struggled to balance work, childcare and home schooling. Being the parents of two young daughters, my wife and I fall into the latter camp. We know firsthand the challenges of juggling this new life in which the lines between home and work are blurred.

Now, five months in, work-from-home is the norm in most regions. Some large companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have committed to some form of the work-from-home model, while many other organizations are trying to figure out the best way to bring people back to work.

For organizations wondering right now how to shape return-to-work plans, something to consider is this: What seems right today is likely to change.

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I’m personally still finding my footing working from home, and I know many workers are in the same situation. My four-year-old interrupted me the other day on an important call with such urgency, I thought that I’d find her sister seriously injured as I ran up the stairs. Instead, they showed me a chickadee with a broken wing. Life and work collide a lot these days, and while a number of workers (25%) report having good work routines at home, others are experiencing fatigue, having moved quickly from ‘zooming’ all day to being ‘zoomed out.’

The novelty of attending virtual work meetings in loungewear with pets passing by in the background has worn off for some and given way to a longing for in-person social interactions by the office watercooler. The success of the remote work experiment, it seems, is individual.

I recently led a panel discussion about the Future of Work and one human resources leader noted, “We have to equip our people to adapt to change.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. People need to become comfortable sitting in discomfort—but we have to provide the tools and the space to do so.

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Design based on what the data tells us

It is difficult for a business to meet the needs of every individual. But it helps to better understand these needs as time goes on. We have been surveying 8000+ workers across 20 countries monthly since March. This data has yielded tremendous insights into workers’ sentiments—and how they are changing. I’ve also taken to the approach of joining a few virtual happy hours, where families and pets are welcome to join in. It humanizes the challenges we’re all facing and allows us to get a glimpse into the lives we’re all leading behind our Teams or Zoom background.

Our three key findings can guide CHRO decisions as they design return-to-work plans for their organizations:

1. The majority of workers (~70%) enjoy working from home, but there are clear trade-offs being made. Let’s be honest, “enjoy” is a strong word for some and workers are almost split when it comes to feeling professionally satisfied and more productive at home than at the office and the majority (64%) miss the social interaction they had at the office. Surprisingly, the latter has decreased over time, which suggests that some of us are getting more comfortable in our new socially distanced world of work.

2. The sustainability of professional satisfaction and productivity at home is uncertain. We can already spot a downward trendline. Over the last five months, our data hints at what we call “remote work fatigue.” In late March, 80% enjoyed working from home and 75% reported that they had an appropriate workspace at home. However, by early June, those numbers had each fallen 10%. Feelings of being more productive at home (-5%), easily collaborating with colleagues (-13%), and being supported by employers (-7%) also decreased.

3. As fatigue occurs and as COVID-19 continues to impact the world around us, the majority of workers are reconsidering life and work priorities to an extent we haven’t witnessed in years. Our research found that a majority of full-time workers are re-assessing work priorities (61%), exploring new sources of income (58%), learning new skills (56%) and considering career changes (48%). Numbers are almost as high for part-time and contract workers.

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Planning the return to work

As organizations design plans for return-to-work, they should begin with a simple action: start a new conversation with workers. As of June 2020, only 50% of those we surveyed felt comfortable returning to their workplaces within the next 6 months. Accordingly, we need to have conversations about workers’ priorities and figure out what new policies or supports will set them up for success in this new era.

For the more than half of workers who are more productive and have higher professional satisfaction at home, we need to understand why that is and how to continue to motivate them. Our data shows that workers want greater ease of collaboration, both internally and externally. For those who are showing signs of burnout, we need to create new approaches and support mechanisms for their juggling act at home in a socially distanced office setting. Workers will then feel invigorated rather than exhausted.

One human resources leader at our recent panel said, “This is the time when organizations need to commit and invest with more rigor in building the capabilities to prepare for future.” Another leader added that, “It’s going to come through the baby steps.” As companies reinvent themselves, they must take the steps to shape a future of work vision and corporate culture that will make work and life better for employees both at home and in the office. Our data can help inform those actions.

Nicholas Whittall

Managing Director – Accenture Strategy, Talent & Organization

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