Remote Work Series Part I: Exploring Workplace Flexibility to Win Talent

Anything that can create value for high quality job candidates and improve the odds of landing them is a win-win

By Michael McGuire | October 21, 2022
Part I of this two-part series looks at the benefit of, when possible, offering remote flexibility and how to rule those opportunities in or out — and to what degree. Part II examines measuring engagement and performance in remote and hybrid settings.

Workplace flexibility has emerged as a deciding factor for many professionals in the decision to take or leave a job. To what extent is up for debate. One study finds many workers want to be fully remote and will take less money to keep it. Another finds they want to be in the office sometimes, especially among the Gen Z cohort.

The takeaway: today's professionals want the freedom to calibrate their own work/life balance more precisely. And, their argument is, they don't have to sacrifice performance or duties to have it.

As a services and talent solutions provider, Actalent helps clients across a range of industries get work done. "People are turning down on-site offers left and right," said Richard Laeng, a talent solutions expert at Actalent. "It's really difficult getting them in the office after they've proven for two years that they can do the work remotely."

The availability and feasibility of those options, however, obviously varies by industry and organization.

Whatever your company's position on remote or hybrid work is, if talent has been hard to find, there could be value in asking: is our current policy on remote flexibility aligned with our business objectives?

"The first question candidates are asking is 'what's the remote flexibility?'" said Mackenzie Kirkham, an account manager in Aerospace and Defense at Actalent. "And the employers that won't budge are the hardest to find candidates for."

Skilled candidates can afford to be choosy in today's job market. Especially in STEM labor categories, where demand is high, supply is low and unemployment hovers between 1-2%, well below the national mark. For jobs in science fields, it's less than 1%.

When analyzed objectively, however, employers are finding remote flexibility options are an effective weapon in the war for talent.

Take the example of a small-market cancer research hospital that was struggling to ramp up their clinical operations to meet funding requirements. With Laeng's help, they turned a labor shortage into an advantage by re-configuring a few traditionally on-site roles into remote and hybrid ones.

"That hospital is seeing the value of finding top-graded talent outside of their local marketplace, and it's created a lot of new research opportunities and revenue that they otherwise wouldn't have access to," said Laeng. "Had they only kept looking at qualified candidates within a commutable distance, they'd be overlooking 95% or more of the people that could do that job. And their chances of finding top talent that's willing to come into the office among the remaining 5% is low, even if they offered a salary well above market value."

By the end of 2023 more than 25% of professional roles will be fully remote, according to a report by Ladders, with more than 50% becoming at least hybrid. That tracks with the 70% of U.S. executives surveyed by PwC in August who say their companies plan to expand permanent remote options for roles that will allow it.

But how are employers deciding which roles will and won't allow remote flexibility?

The process doesn't have to be complicated, Laeng said, but should be grounded in mission-critical reasoning. Otherwise, the decision to expand, limit, or retract remote options could be flawed.

"There's no secret sauce," said Laeng. "Break down each role from an operations perspective. Clearly define each of its functions. Then determine what integral functions must be performed on-site. If someone says a role, or aspects of that role, must be done on-site, ask for concrete business reasons why, rather than just taking their word."

Verify the decision isn't arbitrary or based on outdated information.

"If the only reason for requiring a job to be in-office is 'because that's how we've always done it,' those are the most dangerous words in the English language," Laeng said.

And if, after full review, remote capabilities don't align with your business objectives, that insight should sharpen and strengthen talent strategies moving forward knowing a better option wasn't overlooked.

But if the competition is finding ways to go remote and you're not, be prepared with other remedies to stay talent competitive, such as paying above-market salaries and relocation expenses.

"Even then you still run the risk of losing great talent," said Kirkham.

Attrition costs, lost knowledge transfer, and the added time and investment of onboarding and training new people will become part of the equation, too.

"And you're vastly limiting your candidate pool," added Laeng.

Contrast those implications with Stanford University's findings, cited above, that skilled job seekers polled in twenty-seven countries say they're more productive and would take less money to work from home.

Kirkham recently recruited eighteen systems engineers to work fully remote on moon landing and satellite technology projects for a space systems innovator in Virginia. Several of their stories illustrate how family, health, and quality of life factors weigh heavier on career decisions post pandemic.

"One engineer from California wanted to be closer to her family in North Carolina, but her prior company wasn't going to let her relocate," said Kirkham. "She was trying to figure out what to do. Then we offered her one of the remote positions on this project and it allowed her to be home again with her family."

Another was living halfway across the country and didn't have a choice but to be fully remote.

"He had been sick and out of work for an extended period to recover. When he was ready to work again, there weren't many options unless he relocated, which wasn't something he was comfortable doing," Kirkham said. "Remote work created an opportunity for him and the employer that wouldn't otherwise exist."

None of this is to say candidates looking for fully remote work won't take onsite jobs. They just might not stay long.

"Another engineer was living in New York and working in an office," said Kirkham. "Prior to taking our offer he'd found another opportunity, but it would've required him to relocate to California. He was happy he didn't have to move."

When considering remote flexibility, the outcomes don't have to be all-or-nothing propositions.

"Even if you get to a place where you can create a partially remote or hybrid role, that's a win," said Laeng. "We examined an onsite clinical data manager role. We determined they perform about 16 hours of onsite functions over the course of a week. These were critical functions that couldn't be shifted to another onsite associate. But the rest of their work was primarily administrative and could be done remotely. So, it made sense to turn the data manager position into a hybrid role with two days onsite and three days working from home. That alone expanded the talent pool from 25 miles in any direction to 75. Candidates would be more willing to drive that commute if it was only twice a week, as opposed to five, especially if the salary is highly competitive. Anything that can create value for the candidate and increase the chance of better talent coming in is a win-win."

Ultimately, the remote flexibility analysis is a fact-finding mission to objectively find or rule out viable ways your organization can gain an edge in attracting and retaining talent.

If there are concerns that offering remote flexibility could cause more turnover due to employees feeling disconnected, analyze facts supporting those concerns, and weigh them against the strengths and weaknesses of your operation. That analysis might turn toward the fundamentals of your existing engagement efforts and their compatibility with a remote or hybrid workforce. If they're not compatible, why not? If your culture is strong, are remote performance and engagement concerns less of an exposure for your operation?

If the concern is that performance could suffer in a remote setting, additional questions to consider might be: How do you measure success and performance now? And will remote work require those standards to change? We examine those more in Part II.

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