When Aetna recalled a large number of its remote workers back to offices in 2016, its leadership harbored the same rationale as Yahoo had when former CEO Marissa Mayer made the same decision in 2013—that proximity fosters collaboration and drives business success.

The idea certainly has some legitimacy. Companies like Apple and Google are famous for encouraging employees to stay and work in the office. After all, face-to-face interactions foster better relationships between colleagues and facilitate innovation by putting great thinkers in the same room. 

Aetna, however, faced a rude awakening just as Yahoo had years before. Despite mandating employees to show up at the office, CVS Health, Aetna’s parent company, reported a 4% drop in total annual revenue compared from $60.5 billion to $63.2 billion the previous year. It might not seem like a massive, game-changing number, but billions of dollars are nothing to scoff at.

Attributing the revenue decline to the loss of telecommuting isn’t exactly feasible, but what we can safely surmise is that eliminating remote work didn’t supercharge innovation like Aetna’s leaders had hoped. In fact, Aetna is once again embracing remote work, allowing employees to work from home until at least the end of summer.

The costs of rejecting flexible work arrangements

When presented with opportunities to embrace work from home, many organizations simply looked the other way. Whether leaders didn’t trust employees to work productively or didn’t have the funds to make it happen, it was much easier to simply delay modernization and focus on business growth.

The onset of COVID-19, however, changed perceptions on remote work almost overnight. All of a sudden, every organization needed a remote workforce if it wanted to continue business operations through the pandemic. In just a few weeks, many organizations switched from predominantly office work to remote work, despite rushing to make it happen.

Those perceptions are most likely here to stay post-COVID-19. Organizations able to effectively work from home have mostly been weathering the storm—with some even thriving. Many now see value in offering at least partial flexibility, if not fully remote work positions.

Businesses returning to the pre-COVID-19 normal might be setting themselves up for the same rude awakening that Aetna and Yahoo faced many years ago. Here are just a few reasons why rejecting flexible work can be a huge setback for today’s organizations:

1. Lower employee engagement

Employees across all working generations want to achieve better work-life balances. Traditional work hours impede on their abilities to juggle other life priorities, which results in higher stress, lower engagement, and lower productivity.

Flexible work arrangements should be used as part of every organization’s employee experience strategy. A PGi study found that 82% of workers are less stressed when they work from home, and 77% of workers surveyed by Flexjobs said they would be happier and healthier if they could occasionally work from home. Organizations with highly engaged workforces outperform their competitors by 147%.

2. Higher employee turnover

HR teams know that employee turnover is costly, yet many organizations are still reluctant to offer flexible work options that top candidates want. A Gallup study found that 54% of office employees would leave their job for one that offers more flexible time. Eighty percent would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options.

The average cost of replacing an employee can range from one-half to two times that employee’s annual salary in lost productivity, hiring, and training a replacement. By offering flexible work, however, employees will be much more likely to stay, allowing organizations to avoid turnover and talent attraction costs.

3. More competition for talent

Organizations are increasingly embracing remote and flexible work arrangements, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. A recent Gartner survey on 317 CFOs revealed that 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-COVID-19. Nearly a quarter of those plan to move 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions. 

With more organizations offering remote work, employers who don’t offer flexible work will be severely limited in who they choose. At the same time, employers lose access to the global talent pool by limiting themselves to their geographical locations. The right employees might live several states away, and companies with remote workforces will snatch them up.

4. Less disaster preparedness

When COVID-19 struck, most organizations weren’t ready. As companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google sent employees home early in March, others scrambled to cobble together cohesive work-from-home solutions at the eleventh hour. IT teams panic-bought temporary solutions that weren’t optimized for business needs, and sent employees to work from home with little-to-no training on remote work best practices. 

Any number of factors could force organizations to work from home again (inclement weather, safety, outages), and without a remote-ready workforce, organizations can get caught off-guard again. 

5. Higher operating costs

Every employee in the office costs organizations money. From interior designing to facilities maintenance and perks like food and beverages, more employees in the office means more money spent on overhead. According to Global Workplace Analytics, employers can save up to $11,000 per year by offering flexible work options. In fact, they have a calculator for estimated savings backed by the US Congress.

6. Higher carbon footprint

Social responsibility is an essential part of today’s corporate culture. Workers and customers want to engage with companies with positive reputations for causes that they care about. A Nielsen study found that 81% of global respondents feel strongly that companies should contribute to an ecologically sustainable world.

Organizations without flexible work can’t tout their ecological responsibility, especially in dense metropolitan areas. On average, commuters waste 54 hours a year stuck in traffic, with commuters in high-population areas like San Francisco wasting 103 hours per year. That’s just time spent in reduced speeds, too, and doesn’t factor in normal commute times. With the average American driving 16 miles to work every day, that’s a lot of fuel emissions in the air—and added gas expenditures for employees. 

Implement flexible work effectively with technology

As more organizations embrace remote and flexible work policies following COVID-19, employers without at least partial flexible work can quickly fall behind competing companies. After all, employees won’t want to return to offices and risk contracting illnesses anytime soon. Many organizations realize this and are actively prioritizing employee safety by extending work-from-home until the end of 2020.

Organizations that adopt flexible work today will not only have stronger short and long-term business continuity strategies but are also ready to welcome the workplace of tomorrow.

Flexible work arrangements depend on how effectively remote employees can communicate and collaborate, and it’s up to organizations to provide the right technology. Unified communications solutions like the RingCentral app combine team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone into a single platform where employees can collaborate from anywhere using any device. With remote teams that can seamlessly collaborate, your organization will be fully prepared for the future of work.