What happens if employees won’t return to the office?
While some employees are eager to get back to the office after a year or more of working from home, that’s far from a universal sentiment. Several recent surveys and articles have revealed deep resistance to returning to on-site work, with estimates ranging from a third to almost half of workers saying they’d consider resigning if they were no longer permitted to work remotely. Scores of employees have already quit their on-site jobs.
Or they’re looking. “Employees whose jobs are calling them back into the office aren’t necessarily quitting, but they are actively searching for remote jobs,” FlexJobs career development manager Brie Reynolds told Vox Recode.
As the wave of offices reopening swells, organizational leaders will have to formulate a response. When that response includes embracing a remote or hybrid working model, learning leaders are likely to be deeply involved in implementation—recommending tools and teaching teams to use them, creating and sharing online collaboration spaces, housing resources, and ensuring that all employees know what’s available and how to access it.
But the resistance to returning to the office begs a deeper question: What are the reasons executives cite for wanting people on-site, and how are employees hearing and understanding their explanations? The short answer is that it comes down to company culture; and an effective response calls on leaders to provide a “workplace value proposition.”
‘Perils’ of remote work
Company leaders might say they need workers on-site because productivity suffers with remote work, a contention that many workers handily disproved while working remotely during the pandemic. Other reasons often mentioned are that team connections deteriorate and learning opportunities, including valuable coaching and mentorships, are incompatible with remote work.
Some leaders, like Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill, cite “erosion of office culture,” which, she goes on to explain, means “established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person.”
Employees see things differently
Leadership is finding out, though, that many of their employees see the situation differently—and perceive executive comments about productivity and culture to be veiled digs at their work ethic and trustworthiness. Merrill’s op-ed on the topic was broadly understood by her employees as a threat to move remote employees to contractor status—prompting a staff walkout in response.
Workers are looking back on a very challenging year, during which many of them met or exceeded their typical productivity and output despite an abrupt shift to working from home. And many had significant challenges in their non-work lives too, including children who were not in daycare or whose schooling was taking place at home and needed supervision; difficulties getting needed supplies; healthcare issues; and much, much more.
In some parts of the country, rising numbers of COVID cases means that workers feel that it’s not yet safe to return to the office, even if they prefer working on-site.
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that many workers are considering other options.
Leading a reassessment of company culture
Rather than using mandates or threats to bring workers back to the office, leadership might consider offering a carrot: “What if this is an opportunity for your organization to define a « workplace value proposition » that actually enhances the engagement of your workforce?” Kristin Barry and Ben Wigert ask in a Gallup article, “Going Back to Work in the Office: It Has to Be Worth It.”
They suggest a three-pronged approach:
A workplace value proposition
According to Barry and Wigert, “A workplace value proposition represents the organizational culture, benefits, and interactions employees experience when working on-site. For the organization, it’s ‘why we come to the workplace.’ ” This encompasses connection, collaboration, creativity, and culture.
For workers, the workplace value proposition may well include embracing flexibility, such as the ability to—yep—work remotely at least sometimes.
Studying the elements of an organization’s culture and attempting to define the value proposition may indeed encourage workers to return to the office. Or it could convince leaders that what matters isn’t the physical location of their employees or the specific hours they work but what they accomplish.
Creating connection has historically relied on in-person interactions, whether during formal meetings or chance encounters in the break room. But companies can create opportunities for social interaction both in person and online. Many fully remote companies feature robust networks of social channels for discussions ranging from work topics to dog, cat, and kid-focused chats; book clubs (professional literature and recreational reading); and social engagements.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, leaders who acknowledge that they don’t know the answers to questions and concerns employees raise about returning to the office might foster connection more successfully than leaders who strive to reassure employees that everything is under control.
Wendy Gates Corbett, president of Signature Presentations, points out that “the uncertainty isn’t over” and, as we have encountered and overcome challenges, new unknowns and uncertainties arise. “Leaders don’t like to not have answers,” she said, But “the truth is, when we do not have answers, it builds trust to acknowledge that.”
Breaking out of silos and building collaborative relationships across departments is challenging, even in fully on-site work environments. But workplaces with robust cross-departmental networks perform better and get better results. Learning leadership is well-positioned to nurture those relationships, since they serve the entire company. L&D leaders are also able to improve their own department’s products and performance by enhancing cross-departmental communication and collaboration, marketing consultant Lynne McNamee argues.
Team leaders can jump-start collaboration by identifying tasks that would benefit from collaboration and take intentional steps to build in collaboration, bringing together on-site and remote employees virtually or for scheduled on-site meetings.
Learning leadership can facilitate both connection and collaboration by establishing company-wide use of a collaboration platform and ensuring that everyone, at all levels, learns to use it.
Connection and collaboration are both drivers of creativity—which in turn drives performance. Leaders can engage with individuals or their teams to foster creativity and spark innovation by:
- Supporting training in skills like problem-solving and critical thinking
- Encouraging employees to set challenge goals
- Scheduling in-person or virtual brainstorming sessions where employees feel safe suggesting ideas
Company and team practices create the workplace culture; many of these norms were disrupted by a sudden shift to remote work, though. Leaders who struggle to accept remote work may feel that workers won’t do their jobs if they are not supervised. From the employee’s perspective, constant check-ins and the feeling that the boss doesn’t trust them undermine their psychological safety at work and contribute to a culture of fear or stress.
The answer does not have to be requiring all workers to be on-site, though. In Forbes, Melissa Daimler suggests discussing team practices as a team: “Anytime a team goes through a key change is the right time to revisit team practices so that the team continues to work best together.”
Addressing the Learning Leaders Online Forum, Wendy Gates Corbett agreed. Working within the guardrails that organizational leaders have set, she suggests that teams “create a new set of norms and guidelines for the team, new ways to connect to a shared vision, a shared mission”—including establishing expectations about how the team will communicate.
Pointing out that teams were forced to do this when everyone started working remotely, the transition to hybrid or on-site work is a good time to revisit and update those guidelines.
The not-so-simple act of discussing and revising team norms as a team rather than having leaders dictate terms to their employees may itself be a reset of culture that increases employees’ buy-in and trust in the organization.
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