Originally published to Forbes - April 14th, 2022
A recent jobs report released by the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that our economic recovery is on the right track. The economy added more than 670,000 jobs in February, and the labor market's participation rate remained steady. What's more, the percentage of people working from home due to the pandemic remained in the double digits at 13%. These advances highlight our continued capacity to adapt to the ever-evolving circumstances of the ongoing pandemic.
This, of course, is wonderful news. But to continue our journey toward even stronger post-pandemic growth, we must create more ways to support the new reality of a fully remote or largely hybrid workforce.
Before the pandemic, it seemed improbable that many businesses would offer maximum telework options, more flexible sick leave allowances or adjustable schedules that allow for childcare or eldercare. But over the past two years, we've learned that certain rigid workplace structures and norms no longer serve us or the larger economy. Along the way, we've seen that the vast majority of telework-eligible employees are highly productive in a remote work environment. A whopping 83% of employers say that "the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, compared to 73%" in 2020, and some 30% of workers say they're "likely to switch jobs if returned to fully on-site work."
The fact is that we've been moving closer and closer to this current reality for years now; the pandemic has only hastened the pace. The labor report is just the latest indication that the ways we think about the role of the workplace are fundamentally shifting. As Brian Coulton, chief economist at Fitch Ratings, said, we're seeing "that each successive wave of the virus is having a smaller and smaller impact on activity and labor demand." And more and more employers realize that it's in their best interests to provide more latitude when it comes to employees' schedules, work hours and the like. To maximize these gains, I believe business leaders must:
Prioritize mental health and wellness.
While a largely remote workforce comes with greater flexibility, it also comes with juggling more personal responsibilities during the workday and, sometimes, increased work hours. Now more than ever, it's vital that we all prioritize our employees' mental health as well as our own. According to a recent survey, 46% of full-time workers reported depression, anxiety or other mental health challenges amid the pandemic.
An important component of creating a healthy remote working environment is building team camaraderie. Regular online mentorship and virtual lunch opportunities, for example, can help new and existing employees get imbued with company culture. Simply stopping for a chat while walking to the office kitchen or visiting a co-worker's desk to catch up isn't exactly the norm for many people anymore. So we must be more creative and intentional about how we engage employees and help them feel connected to their colleagues and their company's mission.
Invest in initiatives that support the future work-from-home workforce.
To better ensure that current and future generations are ready for the online/hybrid workplace, we need to help them hone important skillsets today. I'm referring to soft skills like effective communication, teamwork, time management and critical thinking—all of which are vital to maintaining a strong work environment in any sector and in any setting. Consider creating training programs for your employees to learn these skills.
Another way to help future generations learn these skills is by investing in career learning programs at the middle and high school levels that help ensure students are future-ready and gain the skills they need to compete in this new world of work. (Full disclosure, my company offers this type of program, as do others.) Many of these school-based programs even provide the chance to earn college credits and offer project-based learning opportunities or coursework that mimics real-world work experiences. Partnerships between businesses and academic institutions can also help prepare students for the workforce by creating more hands-on learning experiences like internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing opportunities.
Whether you work for a small or a large company, we all rely on digital tools to help ensure that our work and our shared workflows are organized. In a fully remote or largely hybrid environment, we must ensure seamless internal communication and cohesion so that dispersed workers can fulfill their duties and goals as comprehensively as they did in person without duplicating efforts. From Microsoft Teams to Zoom to Slack, every company should choose a combination of communication tools that work for them, their employees and their work culture.
This period presents a unique opportunity to strengthen our economic progress and better meet the needs of American workers, too. It's incumbent on all of us to seize this moment.