The Future of Consumer Markets Workplaces: Flexibility is Here to Stay
When the pandemic altered where and how consumers were able to shop, consumer markets rose to the challenge. I know I’m not alone in being inspired by the essential workers who are manufacturing in the plants, as many companies are now operating on a 24-hour manufacturing cycle to fulfill the increased need for crucial goods.
As far as the consumer goes, preferences were already trending toward increased online orders. Industry leaders were forced to accelerate innovation even further to provide consumers with streamlined and socially distanced shopping experiences.
One more vital piece of the puzzle is the people fueling and executing on these innovations day in and day out. Plexiglass partitions are now part of the in-store cashier experience; warehouse workers may often use contact tracing or other platforms to help prevent risk to the workforce before beginning their shift; and many office workers remain — for the foreseeable future — working virtually.
While I personally can’t wait to return to the office, I recognize that changes are occurring so rapidly that by the time you read this the situation might be different than it is as I write it.
Here’s what we know: Almost half (46 percent) of consumer markets employees anticipate a future with hybrid onsite and remote workplace models, according to PwC’s Next in Work Pulse Survey on the future of work.
This is important, as 87 percent of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships. That being said, flexibility will continue to be key as we navigate further pandemic challenges and what they mean for workplace realities.
Remote Work Can Work
Despite initial concerns when the pandemic shuttered offices globally, companies have learned that remote work — done right — can be overwhelmingly successful. Consumer markets companies have made an especially positive mark in this regard. PwC research shows that these organizations were the most responsive in our survey to employee preferences in planning their return-to-the-workplace measures (71 percent vs. 59 percent for all sectors).
While the future of returning to office environments remains uncertain, leaders are continuing to improve the remote experience. More than 60 percent of executives across sectors plan to invest more in virtual collaboration tools and manager training, while also investing in changes to the office to support hybrid working models such as hoteling apps and more communal space. Timing may be unclear, but leaders do plan to use the office differently, more intentionally, in the future.
Flexibility for All Remains a Challenge
Of course, this level of flexibility can be more challenging to actualize for essential workers across consumer markets. We've seen the importance of consumer companies, like grocery and drugstores, staying open throughout the pandemic to valiantly serve people with essential items.
One reason flexibility is so important: childcare. When I was a young mother, I made the decision to work a flexible schedule to balance the needs of my family with the focus on my career. Fortunately, PwC empowers a culture of flexibility by offering benefits that continuously evolve to meet the needs of our people.
Our people can take additional time to transition back to work when returning from parental leave, work reduced schedules, protect time each day, and take a leave of absence to tend to personal and/or family responsibilities. As a firm, we realized that having the ability to work flexibly — and get work done where and how it complements our people — is one of our most valued benefit offerings. I hope more companies begin to offer similar options.
The good news is that as employees demand increased schedule flexibility (38 percent) and location flexibility (28 percent), companies are delivering on both (43 percent and 44 percent, respectively) as part of their benefits packages. Companies that actively support their employees in this area will see positive results such as increased employee retention — critical given our latest survey found that 65 percent of employees are looking for a new job. Another way to support working parents is giving employees a stipend to help cover the costs of childcare, or offering full parental leave for both parents.
Flexibility Requires Empathy
During this challenging time, consumer markets leaders and managers should work to create safe workspaces for employees — whether remote or hybrid — to communicate their needs. Leaders have an obligation to be intentionally empathic to employee needs.
Creating virtual office hours for employees to meet with managers will help enable a culture of support where both parties can find solutions for what workers need to be successful. Managers should place strong emphasis on mental health and well-being, as well as emotional, spiritual, physical, financial and social health, as the challenges of COVID-19 continue.
Moving forward, we should think about new ways of working that are inclusive to all hybrid arrangements. The ultimate goal is confirming that employees working from home don't feel left out.
Just as consumer markets employees have demonstrated resilience to the challenges over the past 18 months, it’s time for leaders to embrace flexibility with their future of work. While I look forward to the day I see my co-workers in person again in the office, I’m confident in the new hybrid reality being charted by the consumer markets sector.
Barbra Bukovac is consumer markets vice chair at PwC, a multinational professional services network of firms.
Related story: Back-to-Office Report