Who would have predicted a year ago—when business leaders helped employees shift to working from home—that the next major challenge would be getting people to return to the workplace? Yet this is exactly the challenge many employers face today.
Chief among the reasons people hesitate to go back to the office are concerns about health and safety. Many also like the flexibility of working from home and having no commute. To get people back in the workplace, leaders need to do two things: address fears and remain flexible.
Address Employee Fears
In addition to cleaning and social distancing protocols, employers must consider the emotional aspects of returning to work.
A majority of employees worry that returning to work will compromise their health and safety. In a study conducted by Envoy, fully two-thirds of those surveyed shared this concern. When Envoy parsed the data, they found “concerns are even more pronounced among people of color (78%) and Gen Z (under age 25) employees (75%).”
Frequent, transparent, and candid communication can help reduce employee anxiety about returning to the workplace. Even if decisions haven’t been finalized about things like opening dates and who’s required to be at the office, let workers know about the issues under consideration. Limited information is better than no information, as it lets employees know that issues they care about are on your radar.
It’s important to recognize that while everyone has been affected by the pandemic, each of us has been affected in different ways. Some individuals have health conditions that put them at greater risk if infected by the coronavirus, while others have caregiver responsibilities that could make returning to the office difficult. Employers need to be sensitive and approach conversations about returning to the workplace with empathy.
Also, respond to questions as they come up. For example, it may not yet be clear how your team will transition to working in the office again. Let your team know that you’re considering the options. Even if you don’t have answers, your responsiveness will help build trust.
Two-way conversations about issues that may cause anxiety provide employees with opportunities to share their concerns. In addition to making employees feel safer, heard, and understood, conversations provide leaders with a way to identify potential problems and solutions. In the long term, healthy, open dialog between leaders and employees strengthens culture, cultivates loyalty, and increases employee engagement.
Returning to work the way it was pre-pandemic is not an option for companies that want to retain and attract talent. The work from anywhere model has become so important that people are willing to quit their jobs if they’re not allowed to work from home at least part-time. Various studies over the last four months put the percentage of people willing to jump ship for a hybrid work model at 26% to 47%.
Also, of the 800 employers surveyed by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, 94% said that productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely.
Simply put, companies without an ecosystem that allows people to fluidly work in the office, at home, or at third places risk losing staff. Inflexible work locations will also make it harder to compete for new talent against organizations that do allow people to work from anywhere.
Keep in mind that just as people experience the pandemic differently, their views of returning to the workplace will vary. Some welcome the opportunity and look forward to reconnecting with colleagues and clients face-to-face. Some have health concerns—for themselves or as caregivers. Others enjoy how working from home allows them to spend more time with their families. Giving people control over decisions can help smooth the transition from working at home to a work from anywhere model.
“Employers can create a favorable environment by encouraging employee control over decisions about where and when they work,” the American Psychological Association advises. “Consider if the employee can continue to work remotely or set [their] own working hours. Employers can also consider providing a dedicated flex hour, beyond lunch, that is devoted to outdoor activities, recreation, or exercise. This extra time can serve as a coping strategy to help people recharge and transition from remote work to office work.”
A Workplace Transformation in Progress
As the workplace transforms before our eyes, many employers are evaluating how and where work gets done. According to a Small Business Association of Michigan member, many want the office to be a home-away-from-home; they’re building more gathering spaces, huddle areas, and respite spaces. There’s also a significant move to support employees who work from home with ergonomic seating and height-adjustable tables that promote physical well-being as well as enhance productivity. In both cases, employers no longer rely on one-size-fits-all solutions.
Going forward, flexibility that serves both employers and employees will be the key to easing the transition back to the workplace.
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