Many white-collar employees were forced to work from home when a global coronavirus pandemic was declared last March, but now, with an eye toward the great reset, employers must decide whether to embrace working from home permanently or revert back to an in-person working model.

Most employees’ sentiments have shifted toward a preference for continuing working remotely in some capacity after the pandemic recedes, said Lauren Mason, principal and senior consultant for career business at Mercer and the strategic lead for its global rewards practice, during a webinar held by the company recently. Indeed, the organization’s 2020 sentiments data revealed just how important flexibility was to employees. Of the U.S. employees it surveyed, 56 per cent said they’d consider switching employers if flexibility wasn’t an option for them post-pandemic. “We see that employees may force the hands of even the most skeptical [of employers] when it comes to flexibility.”

Read: Head to head: Should remote working continue after the pandemic?

But while many employers are still weighing their options when it comes to the new working reality, some have already come to a decision. Indeed, 61 per cent of U.S. employers Mercer surveyed said they plan to have their workforce back in office by the end of the third quarter in 2021, while 87 per cent said they’re planning to embrace greater flexibility in the post-pandemic world, including a hybrid-work arrangement, said Mary Tinnebra, senior partner and human resources transformation leader for North America at Mercer, during the webinar.

Still, Mason pointed out there are a number of factors employers must consider before deciding on which route to take. The good news for employers, she noted, is 52 per cent of employees surveyed said they prefer a hybrid model, in which they’d work remotely two to three days per week, which aligns with many of the plans employers are looking to embrace.

Read: 52% of U.S. employees want a hybrid work model post-pandemic: survey

But during the webinar, Kelly Bacon, principal and national workplace advisory lead at U.S.-based infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, said the answer isn’t black and white, as what works for one organization may differ from what works for others, depending on the market, the work or service the company provides and interactions employees typically have within the organization and with clients. Employers have been in an all-or-nothing scenario since the start of the pandemic, she said, cautioning that decisions made during extreme times aren’t always sustainable in the long-term.

“One of the biggest opportunities is organizations, agencies, industries that once thought remote working was reserved for only a certain type of work or industry, are now realizing its efficacy,” said Bacon. “The stigma of remote working has been lifted to enable a broader and deeper conversation about what that proper balance looks like.”

Read: 58% of Canadian workers want hybrid-work arrangements post-pandemic: survey

However, place still really matters, she said, as it’s where culture is built and camaraderie, mentoring and training happen. Employers must take into consideration how to maintain that seamless experience, including the physical, special design — furniture, equipment, layout and technology design, she added. “Anyone . . . involved in creating those seamless experiences recognizes how many different vendors and products and processes and alliances [must] happen for that scenario . . . to ring true.”

Mason said many employers are working to understand their employees’ attitudes and preferences around flexibility, whether through deploying surveys or running focus groups. However, at times, employees’ expectations exceed what the employer is willing to offer, which has created an environment where companies are taking a balanced approach. She also said employers are more broadly defining flexibility and recognizing its importance to all employees — not just those who can work remotely. They’re figuring out how flexibility affects the work that’s done within the organization in terms of the impact on productivity, customer satisfaction and innovation. And, she noted they’re aiming to reach an objective and consistent approach. “We’ve seen that create a lot of value in helping employees feel like the system is fair — even if they may not necessarily agree with the outcome.”

Read: Half of employers plan to continue flexible working policies post-pandemic: survey