The fast-approaching two-year mark of the pandemic is forcing us to contend with something unexpected: The hesitancy to return to the office has to do with more than Covid-19 health concerns for many workers. Employers planning their post-pandemic workplace with little to no direct employee input are missing a key opportunity to strengthen their relationship with their employees.
Instead of building a plan based on assumptions, employers should try to understand why many employees are hesitant to return to the status quo and tailor their strategy to what employees really want.
Why could employees be hesitant to return to the office?
While the drive to remote work was about prioritizing public health and safety, I believe the decision to return to the office is about much more and requires leaders to acknowledge a new and different cost-benefit equation. Not only have employees become more aware of the costs of commuting into the office and the benefits of working remotely (e.g., greater productivity, more time with family, etc.), but also they’ve become aware of how the benefits of being in person have changed in a new remote environment.
First, there are the more obvious factors: Many employees may be dreading the return of a long office commute when they are just as, if not more, productive at home. Employees can save hours when they don’t need to drive to the office. Remote work also offers employees the freedom to choose where they live without dependence on a job position.
But what’s perhaps less obvious is that in-person environments have changed. Many employees who have started to work from the office have been hit with the reality that many meetings are still being held virtually, thus making the need to be physically present feel unnecessary. Business communication technologies such as Zoom are beginning to release new software features to assist people working both from home and the office, while even companies like LinkedIn are facing challenges orchestrating a hybrid work environment.
In spite of the hurdles introduced by hybrid work, many employees may still crave the social interaction promised by the office. When that is the case — and this might differ across organizations — I expect more companies will plan on- or off-site gatherings to foster connections. Confronting this reality may also prompt employers to shift their mindset around the primary purpose of the office: not as a place primarily to do work, but a place to periodically connect.
How can employers accommodate the evolving expectations of their employees?
To avoid losing talent to the “Great Resignation,” companies will need to work to build trust and loyalty with their workers. Trust in leadership is built when leaders demonstrate interpersonal caring and hold themselves accountable to good behavioral standards. Cultures built on transparency can help support a range of employees with different backgrounds. Transparency, when combined with empathy and authenticity, engenders trust and loyalty. Employers can cultivate an authentic environment by being upfront and honest with their employees while seeking out employee opinions.
When times are uncertain, it is crucial for company leaders to create a space in which all workers feel they’re being heard and respected. To retain workers in a remote world, there’s pressure on employers to be better people and methodically search for answers to important questions: What’s really behind the feelings that my employees have about coming back to work? And how can I build a plan that’s based on what their actual concerns and desires are, versus the assumptions I might have as an employer? Workers will continue to hold leaders accountable for promises they made in the past. If workers join a company to get behind a mission, they expect that leaders will remain true to the mission even when the chips are down. Leaders who keep their promises and listen to their employees will be rewarded with better employee retention rates in the remote universe.
This period is a moment for leaders to reflect and evolve. It’s a time to identify their assumptions, understand their own motivations and think about different ways of leading to create an inclusive environment that allows for more energized and content employees. To retain employees in the remote world, there is renewed pressure on employers to be more honest, more accountable and more trustworthy. Most importantly, leaders should drive the concept of transparency within their organizations and make it a mission to understand the true motivation that their employees have in resisting the return to the office.