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Why Getting Back To the Office Is Essential To Managing the Retention Crisis Though a degree of flexible work options is likely beneficial, the persisting retention crisis begs the question of whether the shift towards fully remote is partly to thank for an unraveling of company culture

By Andrea Mullens

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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For team leaders grappling with the great resignation, a new survey reporting that more than half of remote workers would quit if forced back to the office full-time might seem a clear mandate: Let your team stay at home, or else.

At the same time, a concurrent report attesting that over half of employees in the US already want to leave their jobs should alert them to the complexity of issues at root in the ongoing retention crisis. Even with – or perhaps partly because of – more teams going remote, worker dissatisfaction is at a high, evidencing a growing disconnect between employees and their co-workers, leaders, and profession more generally.

Though a degree of flexible work options is likely beneficial, the persisting retention crisis begs the question of whether the shift towards fully remote is partly to thank for an unraveling of company culture. Could it be that the office – even with its daily commute and distractions – in many ways helps cultivate a healthy team culture and growth opportunities? Could it be that the ongoing retention crisis becomes more unmanageable the less time we spend in person?

Let's take a closer look at three invaluable things that we're losing by staying out of the office and how they might just prove essential to reversing retention trends.

Training, development and pathways to growth

Remote work forced us to digitize systems and processes across the board, including training and development. Online access to company-wide training is a largely positive development that helps to bolster inclusivity and equitable access to resources. Yet without the office, employees lose access to informal forms of learning and valuable workplace connections that could create a critical skills shortage over time.

Any new position always comes with an initial learning curve for experienced professionals and new graduates alike, but without the office our teams lack the ability to learn by osmosis. From shadowing meetings through to seeing a new process in action, studies suggest at least 20 per cent of our job training comes from observing others and teams learning new skills together feel they are more successful in general. In reality the real impact may be even higher as learning by proxy is often subconscious and harder to quantify.

Pathways to promotion and leadership are also being eroded as remote-only employees lack the chance to build and cement professional relationships across the organization. In theory, stretch assignments and strategic company projects should be assigned to the employees most able to deliver results, but final decisions are often influenced by team dynamics and employee visibility. It also becomes harder to develop relationships with potential mentors when email and messenger are the only methods of communication.

In a best-case scenario companies may see the pace of on-boarding or process adoption take a sharp drop. At worst it could create a time-bomb for the next-generation of employees who haven't yet mastered the professional skills required to excel. Given that 82 per cent of employees would consider leaving their job if it doesn't offer valuable career development opportunities, it's fundamental that leaders proactively work to recreate the workplace connections that are essential for employee development. A hybrid return to the office can support this by creating the opportunity to engage with employees while also preserving valuable remote-work productivity gains. To maximize efforts companies can explore ideas such as running training programs on multiple dates to offer improved flexibility or proactively organize days where different teams or management functions will have the chance to work alongside each other.

Team cohesion and company culture

More than 18 months have passed since office doors around the world first closed in 2020, with many still yet to reopen. Long-term employees are unable to connect with valued colleagues after a highly turbulent period. New hires have started and terminated employment contracts without ever moving beyond the screen. Entire teams are reporting to managers they have never shaken hands with.

Whether it's work on a group project or an impromptu lunch with a friend, the office provides an essential anchor and allows teams to connect, collaborate and feel engaged by the work they do. Employees hired without meeting face to face are reported to "question the purpose of their jobs" and struggle to find meaning in their work. Recent studies exploring the effects of the pandemic also uncovered a direct connection between remote work and siloed collaboration, eroding the ability to build high-performance teams.

While a period of uninterrupted time at home can yield excellent results for deep-work sessions, group projects and innovation risk being stifled if the office no longer exists. Although harder to measure, we undervalue the importance of soft-work at our own peril - something that is becoming increasingly apparent the longer teams remain fully remote.

In this instance, hybrid policies can become an inherent part of strategic planning for project work or company initiatives. Project managers can aim to incorporate group activities such as sprint retrospectives or creative brainstorm sessions into company-wide office schedules and ensure the relevant spaces are reserved for any key touch points within the project timeline.

Team leaders' ability to lead

If totally severing a team's physical connection with an office environment – and their emotional connection to their work – can rob an employee of precious aspects of workplace culture, it likely deprives team leaders equally.

Whether managers have a long-standing relationship with their employees or not, without the office leaders lose opportunities to pay attention to and read their team members' body language and secondary communication signs. This can seriously impede their ability to perceive how team members are getting on in their day-to-day tasks. They're not as capable of monitoring employees' stress nor of developing a more intimate understanding of who they are, including their strengths and weaknesses.

As they lose out on the chance to more closely observe and know their team members, leaders also lose the chance to, say, segue from a greeting in the break room to a real discussion. Without the office, when they do connect with employees, leaders miss the implicit non-verbal communications inherent in face-to-face meetings.

In today's workplace communication has increased in value and is now the number one skill employees feel their managers lack. Without effective communication, decision-making abilities are constricted, and leaders managers can't lead. Moreover, if these same employees report feeling detachment, and often a sense that they're viewed as expendable by their managers, the record-breaking number of resignations begins to become more understandable.

However, the solution could well lie within the issue itself. Employees are less likely to quit when they have engaging leaders, and active recruiters need to increase financial incentives by as much as 20% to hire employees away from engaged leaders. In the context of hybrid policies, companies must support their leaders and ensure schedules allow for physical team meetings and management 1-to-1's as a priority.

What can be done and the case for the hybrid office solution

As we look ahead we can't ignore the resounding consensus that a fresh approach to the office is due. We've seen that the opportunity to work from home can boost employee productivity and wellbeing, but this shouldn't cause us to lose sight of the equally profound ways that the office contributes to an enriched workplace environment.

Over prolonged periods of time, limited physical interaction could stunt career growth, team productivity and the potency of our leaders company-wide. Moreover employee demand for increased remote-work opportunities isn't a landslide, with some surveys finding up to 65% crave more in-person time with colleagues.

The pandemic may have served as a death knell for traditional 5-day-a-week work models, but by losing our offices entirely we also weaken our ability to build cohesive, engaged teams. Hybrid solutions offer a way to maintain a progressive working environment without compromising on staff engagement opportunities that could help to address the equally pressing resignation crisis.

Andrea Mullens

VP of Human Resources at Ingram Micro Cloud

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