How Should Leaders Respond When Employees Do, or Don’t, Want to Return to the Office?
Leaders in the post-COVID business era understand this scenario. First, they love their teams. They manage amazing bands of productive, creative, competitive, supportive people who are eager to challenge themselves and each other to generate the best work possible. Except now, some of those team members want to maintain their home ergonomic workstations and not return to the workplace. Perhaps even permanently.
For many industry sectors, particularly tech and finance, the hybrid workforce is no longer merely an alternative; it’s a reality. Accenture’s Future of Work Study 2021 found that 83 percent of worldwide workers prefer a hybrid schedule that allows them to split time between home and office. And in a 2021 Society for Human Resources poll of 1,000 workers, 52 percent said they would prefer to work from home full-time. Microsoft and Google are among the many tech companies to introduce detailed hybrid work models (though both companies delayed reopening their headquarters) that seek to balance employee safety, productivity, and preference.
This expanding hybrid workforce is concerned with more than work location. Flexible schedules carry similar weight in the new model, with Salesforce offering a “Work From Anywhere” platform that employees can tailor to match their work requirements and home needs. “The 9-to-5 workday is dead, and the employee experience is about more than ping-pong tables and snacks.” Salesforce President & Chief People Officer Brent Hyder wrote.
Still, not every leader is comfortable making such assertive declarations or sweeping overhauls. And workers aren’t entirely sure of their workplace convictions, either. According to a PwC U.S. Pulse Survey conducted in August 2021, employee preferences for hybrid work are “all over the map:” 19 percent want an all-remote job, 17 percent prefer to work primarily remote, and 22 percent favor being in the office.
Leaders must confront this challenging new work model with patience, compassion, and clarity. So before issuing a return-to-office mandate or outfitting every team member with a home treadmill desk, leaders should contemplate the best methods for handling their diverse teams. Here are some suggestions.
Don’t Dictate Terms to Your Team. Instead, Listen to Them.
Team members who have been working remotely for the last 18 months are understandably uneasy with mandates. The balance is delicate. According to the Limeade Institute’s Employee Care Report, every respondent said they had some anxiety about returning to work on-site, whether that regarded COVID, losing access to a flexible schedule, commuting again, or needing child care. Apple reportedly faced employee pushback to its hybrid model that set required weekly in-office days. Meanwhile, a professor of behavioral economics and psychology at Duke told CNBC that people eventually would want to return to their in-person work environments.
Leaders forming their plans for hybrid work must understand that flexible work environments begin with them. Rigid management methods are out. Instead, build common ground with your employees regarding where they work and how they schedule. Listen to their concerns. That strategy applies to any form of effective management.
Indeed, this could create some challenging tensions between managers and team members. However, good leaders view such situations as an opportunity. As the Deloitte paper “Workforce Strategies for Post-COVID Recovery” suggests, returning to work and rethinking work have become entwined considerations of any successful business.
“While many workforces have demonstrated resiliency in the face of crisis, it is important to remember that transformative change can be difficult and unsettling for many workers,” the paper stated. “While some may prefer working from home, others may be uncomfortable or unproductive outside of traditional work settings. How leaders accommodate and balance these divergent expectations will help define the future of trust in their organization.”
Guide Team Members With Empathy and Compassion
Work can be stressful enough. Unfortunately, for some people, returning to the office creates further anxiety.
According to a recent McKinsey & Company survey, about half of respondents said they felt anxious or distressed upon returning to the office. In addition, those who reported negative impacts on their mental health were five times more likely to assume less responsibility upon returning to on-site work.
Anxiety can have a tangible impact on businesses. As a result, the National Safety Council has built a tool that allows leaders to calculate the potential costs of mental health issues in the workplace. “We must also acknowledge the humanity in this issue and extend support to our colleagues and loved ones who have experienced unprecedented stress and distress over the past year and beyond,” wrote Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the NSC.
Leaders who treat their teams with empathy and compassion do right for their employees and their businesses. Mental Health America issued an eye-opening 2021 report that documented the fractures COVID caused in workplace foundations:
- About 83 percent of respondents said they felt “emotionally drained” at work.
- About 59 percent said their supervisors did not provide emotional support.
- Nearly 90 percent said workplace stress affects their mental health.
The good news?
“Employers that acted with transparency, empathy, and flexibility likely experienced a smoother transition during COVID-19 than companies that did not consider workplace culture, especially in high-stress or remote work environments,” the report concluded.
Leaders can show empathy and compassion by making mental health resources available as part of insurance plans; this helps nurture employees’ wellness and productivity. They also can show kindness by meeting team members where they live and work.
Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index found that 61 percent of leaders say they are “thriving,” report better relationships with colleagues, and expect to use all of their vacation time. That’s a stark contrast to those who don’t make decisions.
“Now more than ever, people are expecting their employers and leaders to empathize with their unique challenges,” the report noted. “But business leaders may be out of touch with what their employees need.”
The takeaway: Stay in touch with your team.
Be Clear and Consistent About Work Policies
Leaders can alleviate many of their teams’ concerns simply by being better communicators. Employees have been stressing that point for decades; the pandemic merely made them shout it louder.
McKinsey found that 68 percent of workers feel their organizations have presented a vague or unclear map for the future of remote work. The communication vacuum naturally is causing stress: 47 percent of employees at those organizations reported feeling anxious, and nearly half of all those surveyed feel burnout.
“Burnout is especially pronounced for people feeling anxious due to a lack of organizational communication,” according to the McKinsey report. “These employees were almost three times more likely to report feeling burned out. The obvious recommendation for organizational leaders: Share more with employees, even if you’re uncertain about the future, to help improve employee well-being now.”
Leaders can help by establishing clear policies and priorities. For example, those mandating office time must address the safety measures they’re taking and establish contingencies for future COVID upheaval. For remote employees, set specific days and times for team interaction. Finally, promise that you’ll respond to general inquiries by EOD and urgent requests within an hour or two.
Consider holding virtual office hours and check-ins. And don’t be afraid to overcommunicate. Leaders should prefer addressing their teams’ annoyances rather than their anxieties.
Be Firm But Fair With Your Team
People believe they are working hard, smartly, and efficiently despite all the disruptions over the past year. According to the Limeade Institute, 81 percent of employees reported being more productive in 2020 than before. However, leaders seeking to nurture that productivity must remain firm and fair in their approach to the workplace.
Everyone benefits from spending time in the office. It promotes creativity and camaraderie, establishes a sense of belonging and identity with the company, and builds trust among team members. Additionally, leaders coach better through in-person interactions, and employees are more visible to management, which facilitates career development. So leaders should encourage office time, perhaps even require it, depending on their business goals and circumstances. But they should do so with a fair touch.
Leaders also must be firm regarding productivity expectations and fair about the potential side effects. Build a policy that defines KPIs within the context of remote work: Instead of assessing hours worked, for instance, capture goals achieved or targets met.
Leaders should understand as well that digital exhaustion is real and growing. Microsoft found that weekly team chats increased 45 percent from February 2020-February 2021, and the number of emails increased by more than 40 billion. Make sure that productivity expectations factor in the increased potential for burnout.
Ultimately, the hybrid work model can benefit everyone. According to Unisys, 79 percent of leaders consider remote work as or more productive than being in an office, and 75 percent of employees agree. In addition, Accenture found that high-growth companies have created work-from-anywhere models, while stagnant companies focus more on the where of work rather than the how.
For leaders, the key to managing the hybrid work model is to remember that they manage people first.
Eileen McNeely, founder of Harvard University’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise, summed it up well in a recent interview with the Harvard Gazette. “There’s a lot of concentration on the factory floor to oiling machines, putting sensors on machines to ensure they’re operating well, but they often don’t do that with people.” McNeely went on to say, “Companies are thinking about the new normal, about remote work — do people have IT support? — but really, we need to be thinking deeper than that.”
View original article on Linkedin Pulse here.