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Michelle Singletary: Remote work should be a permanent employee benefit

By Michelle Singletary Washington Post

Given the resurgence of coronavirus cases, it’s clear that the way we work must change. COVID has taught us that workers want more than just a bigger paycheck, they also want flexibility, which for some is a priceless benefit.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I developed multiple clots in my left leg. One clot – a deep vein thrombosis – traveled to my lung. By the time I arrived in the emergency room, barely able to breathe, a physician bluntly said, “You should be dead.”

Testing found that I had protein S deficiency, a disorder that makes me prone to blood clots. I had to have anticoagulant medicine pumped into me constantly and was put on bed rest for the rest of my pregnancy. I recovered and delivered a healthy baby. After giving birth to two more children, I realized that commuting every day – for an hour or more each way, depending on traffic – was just too stressful.

Between my continued health challenges and those of my children, including having a child with autism, I began working from home full time. That was more than 20 years ago, when working remotely was, for the most part, by special permission only. It could have been a career killer. Fortunately, for me, it wasn’t.

There’s a work benefits revolution coming. Companies that accept the changes will prosper. Those that don’t will lose their competitive edge.

When possible, companies should allow employees to opt for full-time remote work or a hybrid option. If employees can’t work from home, there still needs to be flexible scheduling to allow them to take care of their families when the need arises.

COVID has delivered devastating losses, but one outcome that I hope lasts is the realization that the way we work has taken a toll on our bodies and family life. For so long, many employees have been pushing for flexibility in their work schedules. But for many companies and managers, there’s still a stigma attached to employees who want a work/life balance.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2021 report found that even before the pandemic, nearly half of employees in the United States and Canada reported experiencing a lot of stress.

“Physical health, loneliness, financial hardship and community support, among other factors, affect the involvement, enthusiasm and productivity of workers in both good times and bad,” the Gallup report said. “Successful corporations of the future not only will generate profits, but also will generate thriving employees who are capable of weathering crises.”

I moderated a Washington Post Live discussion Thursday on how the pandemic has changed the benefits landscape. Many employees are no longer afraid of asking for remote working options, family-friendly policies, and health and wellness options.

In prepping for the discussion, I read a report, “The Future of Benefits,” from Care.com. This report and many others unequivocally show that having the flexibility to care for yourself and others without the stress of worrying about keeping your job or forgoing promotions makes you a better employee.

“One of the few benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has put a spotlight on the challenges and vulnerabilities that workers have faced all along,” the Care.com report said. “While employers had seen statistics demonstrating that juggling work and care responsibilities adversely affects productivity, retention, absenteeism, and employee health, the pandemic has brought that to the forefront with unprecedented clarity.”

Here’s another important observation from the report: “In our understandable hunger to get ‘back to normal,’ we may want to forget the unsolicited insights this crisis has generated. But we can’t, and we shouldn’t, because the ‘New Normal’ need not look like the old one.”

Recommendations from the report include making permanent many of the temporary remote work options companies instituted to avoid increasing the number of COVID cases. What more proof do businesses need than the past 18 months, which showed many workers can do their jobs from anywhere. Why have rigid return-to-work policies?

Actually, I work harder from home, always trying to prove that I can be just as productive working remotely.

Follow the lead of LinkedIn, which is giving its 16,000 global employees a choice of how to work.

“We’ve learned every individual and every team works differently, so we’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all policy,” LinkedIn chief executive Ryan Roslansky wrote in a blog post last month. “We’re embracing flexibility with both hybrid and remote roles, expecting more of us to be remote than pre-COVID and removing the expectation of being in the office 50% of the time.”

A lot of workers don’t have a choice. They can’t work from home. But among those who can, many don’t want to return to their cubicles, or if they do, they only want to do so a few days a week.

A Gallup poll from October 2020 to April 2021 found that roughly 4 in 10 white-collar men (41%) and white-collar women (39%) said that, if given a choice, they would rather continue remote work.

When coronavirus cases again decline, we shouldn’t go back to the old normal. Flexible work shouldn’t be just a crisis go-to. It should be a permanent employee perk.

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