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Welcome to FNEI Insights, a blog series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. 

There is no question that the pandemic has completely upended the U.S. workforce. Not only did millions of people lose their jobs amid the crisis, but reports show that those who have returned to work have landed with completely new employers. In fact, job churn is at its highest rate in two decades.

Additionally, the “temporary fix” of virtual meetings and remote work is becoming an attractive permanent option for a growing number of companies and their employees. A January survey from PwC revealed that 83 percent of employers said the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, and less than one in five executives want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic.

What does all of this mean for the future of work? And even more so, are companies prepared to adapt to the changes? FNEI talked to two top executives about their visions of post-pandemic work, the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and how business leaders can thrive in a newly evolving work environment.

A Hybrid Future

Dennis Garcia

Dennis Garcia, assistant general counsel at Microsoft, believes the future of work will be a hybrid work environment. For Garcia, who managed a remote team before the pandemic, the benefits of remote and hybrid work environments are easy to list: reduction of overhead costs associated with physical work environments, better productivity, employee empowerment through flexibility, and attracting and retaining great talent.

However, this doesn’t mean that hybrid work environments don’t pose substantial challenges. Quoting Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Garcia says that “everything becomes more complex, not less complex, in hybrid work.” If not managed correctly, Garcia says employees can feel isolated, collaboration and communication can decrease, and relationship building among co-workers can be difficult.

“I believe that it is up to the senior leaders of any company to set the right tone at the top to help build a great culture when people are working hybrid or fully remote,” Garcia says. “In addition, I believe that embracing a growth mindset mentality and creating an environment built upon what Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson calls ‘psychological safety’ are fundamental elements for creating a great company culture in hybrid or remote work environments.”

Although some executives have voiced concerns that remote work can impede company creativity, Garcia says a creative and inspiring hybrid work culture is possible. “I believe that it is up to both company leaders to inspire and motivate their teams and for individual employees to be accountable to inspire and motivate themselves,” he says. Specifically, Garcia recommends that company leaders focus on three key strategies: properly rewarding employees for new ideas and creativity, working hard to earn their trust, and embracing a framework of “model, coach, and care” when interacting with teams.

The flexibility of hybrid work also opens the door to attracting great talent — and also the risk of losing great talent. “I think that the biggest mistake companies can make is taking its top talent for granted — especially when such top talent is being actively sought after by other companies,” he says. “Constantly work to ‘re-recruit’ your top employees and provide them with the right opportunities to grow and develop.”

Another challenge of a hybrid work model is onboarding. This can make or break the initial experience your talent will have. “Set new employees up for success by creating the appropriate onboarding practices for new employees and align them with the right leaders to mentor, coach and develop them,” Garcia continues. 

Remote Options

Brent Messenger

Another post-pandemic shift has been a surge in freelance and contract work. Many professionals that found themselves out of work turned to contract work out of necessity, and companies that were forced to downsize or have an online presence used freelancers as a way to get the work done without full-time help.

“Businesses leaders and managers everywhere had to, overnight, become comfortable with the concept of remote work,” says Brent Messenger, VP Public Policy and Community Engagement at Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelancers. “For smaller businesses — especially ones that operated brick and mortar storefronts — we saw a massive migration online. But they needed people to help them do it.”

Now, a year later, Messenger says Fiverr has continued to see an increased use of freelancers among both large and small companies, not just for the quick solution they offer during the pandemic but for the long-term business benefits they can bring.

“Many business leaders who were previously unsure of how it would work were surprised by how productive their teams could be while working apart,” Messenger says. “After that trust was built, they began to understand that it’s not just remote teams that work, but tapping into remote freelance talent could help them scale their teams to operate more quickly and efficiently.”

Although he fully expects some companies to return to traditional work environments, Messenger believes contracted work and hybrid work schedules will be the norm. “Business leaders are now more trusting of freelancers and understand the benefits around productivity and agility that can come from working with them,” he says. “Yes, some companies will require their employees to go back to the office, but it won’t be the same pre-COVID office they’ll be returning to. They will be more flexible.”

A Whole New Landscape

A recent report from Microsoft makes it clear: “Flexible work is here to stay, and the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted.” As companies transition into this new reality, both Garcia and Messenger agree that business leaders will need to carefully examine their goals and the implications of remote work.

Specifically, Garcia says that companies should focus on how a post-pandemic work environment can better serve their customers, how they can support the wellbeing of their employees, and how they can foster healthy work cultures.

Cybersecurity should also be a top concern. “Companies will need to continue to embrace leading technology that they can truly trust,” Garcia says.

Messenger adds that the digital transformation the industry witnessed during the pandemic is here to stay — a fact business leaders need to embrace sooner rather than later. “Companies now understand the importance of operating as efficiently online as they do offline,” he says. “We’re all excited for the world to start operating like it did pre-pandemic from a social perspective, but from a work perspective and technology perspective, I believe things are forever changed.”