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How major companies are responding to employee needs in a remote work world that has no end in sight

As tech firms like Google and Uber extend work-from-home orders till summer of 2021, millions of employees are bracing for more unprecedented challenges as the traditional boundaries between life and work — i.e., the work/life balance — continue to break down.

Some employees have returned to offices, but mostly the “essential” ones. Some major employers are signing massive new office space leases in big cities, and buying whole buildings to hold thousands of workers, such as Facebook and Amazon. But for many in the U.S. workforce, it is now nearing month six of working remotely, and there is no end in sight. 

Invest in You asked members of CNBC’s Workforce Executive Council what they were doing to help their employees navigate these stressful times. 

The burden of child care

One hot-button issue that employers and employees are looking at is child care. 

A new school year is beginning, but the debate continues to rage if schools should fully reopen. What happens with education will have a big effect on working parents, juggling job responsibilities and homeschooling, especially for the youngest, least independent learners.

K-12 school districts across the country vary widely in plans — ranging from fully remote and fully open to hybrid models — all subject to change based on the latest virus trends. Some remain undecided, causing angst among parents and business leaders.

Corporate HR departments are doing what they can to ease the pressure on working parents.

For example, Ernst & Young will provide discounted tutoring, and double its benefits program that offer employees access to caregiving, from 12 to 24 days. 

Hewlett Packard is planning to offer parents integrated groups, similar to employee resource groups, based on a child’s age, so they can share tips on parenting while working from home, as well as educational curriculum support for children. In addition, HP is implementing more variable scheduling and flexible leave options for employees, so they do not have to face the prospect of leaving the organization permanently, according to Tracy Keogh, chief human resource officer.

Why some want to return to the office

For months, employees have wondered when the Zoom calls will end and in-person meetings begin again. For that to happen, employees need to feel safe in their offices.

“Most employees, regardless of age, don’t feel safe coming into the office yet, because they are worried about traveling on public transportation and social distancing, so want to continue working remotely,” said Amy Reichanadter, chief people officer at Databricks.

However, internationally, in countries where Covid-19 cases are lower than in the U.S., employees feel ready to return, Reichanadter said. 

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Several CHROs said it’s become clear to them that employees miss opportunities for in-office collaboration.

Alex Ruch, director of human resources for the North America arm of TGW Logistics Groupsaid older workers — especially those in leadership positions — are eager to return as it is often more difficult to manage teams remotely.

Some predict that the future of work will be a hybrid model, in which employees continue to work remote and only come into the office for collaborative projects. 

David Rabin, vice president of global commercial marketing at Lenovo, said, “In this scenario, the office then turns into a ‘Business Center’ – or collaboration space – which may also indicate the end of the open office era and a shift in the purpose of a company’s headquarters as we once knew it.”

InaMarie Johnson, chief people and diversity officer at Zendesk, said while senior employees like working from home, they still hope to utilize office space for collaboration and connecting with teams and peers going forward.

Feedback and fighting low morale 

As the Covid-19 virus spread across the U.S., CHROs and chief people officers raced to open lines of dialogue with management teams and employees.

Employee feedback was, and remains, critical in developing the tools necessary to meet the sudden shift to remote work. A system of behaviors that inspire trust among co-workers could only be maintained if leaders knew what employees needed to be successful in the remote environment.

A survey in April conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that two out of three employers say that maintaining employee morale during the pandemic has been a challenge, especially in large companies with over 500 employees. 

To combat low morale, leaders began to implement community activities online.

Lisa Buckingham, chief people, place and brand officer at Lincoln Financial, launched several campaigns to keep employees engaged.

“We hosted a virtual “Lincoln’s Got Talent” competition on our internal social media app, featuring employees from across the country singing, dancing, painting, crafting, and more.” 

There were serious issues, too, that were revealed and ultimately resolved by engaging with employees on the social app. Lincoln Financial’s weekly feedback survey indicated workers were not comfortable requesting time to take a vacation. To avoid burnout from the compound stress of sudden shifts in routine and fears of the virus, Lincoln Financial encouraged employees to take time off. “We even shared fun staycation ideas and had senior leaders share their plans on our internal social app,” Buckingham said.

Remote work as an employee equalizer

For some, working from home has become an equalizer.

“Prior to a global virtual-first workplace, employees who attended meetings virtually with colleagues who were in-office might have been overlooked as contributors to the conversation and felt at a disadvantage as a result,” said Susan Tohyama, CHRO at Ceridian HCM Holdings. “Now, everyone is on equal footing/viewing, and when a virtual meeting is done, everyone clicks off at the same time. There’s no wondering if the conversation organically continued in the physical space, which also removes the fear you’ve missed out on important details.” 

Struggles will continue for remote workers. With no clear date for when it will be safe for the majority of workplaces to safely reopen, many workers will remain remote and CHROs will have to keep innovating to respond to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. 

Equalization of the workforce may be a silver lining, though.

“We are seeing acceleration of the trend to democratize the workplace,” said Diane Gherson, CHRO at IBM. “During these last few months, digital technology has flattened hierarchies, with everyone connected and getting information at the same time, and so many channels for employee input and involvement in decision-making in real time.”

IBM implemented several Covid work-from-home pledges, including a pledge to be “family sensitive” and support “not camera-ready” times.

Gherson said those pledges are a perfect example of workplace democratization:

“It was developed grassroots and went viral, and then formally adopted by our CEO after tens of thousands of IBMers had signed up. We believe that innovation is fueled in large part by the connections of our employees.”

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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