Why You Should Rethink That Return-to-Office Mandate
Use these three strategies for bridging the gaps between employees and employers in the age of remote work.
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Remote work just might be the ultimate "will they, won't they?" If corporate leaders had their way, workers would've collectively resumed their pre-pandemic patterns of office-based work mere months after initial lockdowns. And indeed, some did try to call their workers back to the office by the end of 2020. Others, such as Google and Apple, set their sights on fall 2021. Unfortunately for them, the delta and omicron variants had other plans.
However, a large percentage of employees aren't returning to their cubicles quietly. According to a recent study from the Future Forum Pulse, 76% of workers don't want to return to full-time office work, and they're prepared to make the road back to the office anything but direct. A global survey of more than 32,000 workers determined that nearly two-thirds are prepared to resign from their posts if served a return-to-office mandate. And with 47 million American workers resigning in 2021 alone, it wouldn't be wise to call their bluffs.
Why employers are pushing for in-office work
To understand the disconnect between employees' demands and employers' expectations, you need to first understand why employers want employees back at their desks in the first place. For the most part, they aren't implementing return-to-office policies because employees aren't getting their work done. In fact, research shows that productivity increases by about 13% when employees are allowed to work from home at least part of the time.
Rather, asking employees to return to in-office work is often a fear-based response to a perceived lack of control. When you're in the office, the thinking goes, you can simply walk down the hallway to converse with direct reports. You can see them working at their desks or engaging in meetings. That sightline gives you a sense of control. Conversely, when everyone is working from different locations, you might start to fear that you're not maximizing your return on people, even if your employees haven't given you a reason to think this.
To be fair, there are valid reasons for wanting to return to the office. For one thing, not all employees do well in virtual environments. For relational-based employees, for instance, working from home can have an isolating effect. Per a survey from Airtasker, about 70% of workers rank social relationships with co-workers as important. These folks crave those spur-of-the-moment watercooler interactions that Slack and Zoom just can't deliver.
Additionally, when work life and home life become blurred, disconnecting from work grows increasingly difficult. It's no wonder, then, that almost half of professionals who transitioned to remote employment in 2020 are working more hours than they previously did and that 70% are working on the weekends. Even still, a good chunk of the workforce believes the benefits of remote work outweigh the downsides, and as someone who's telecommuted for the past 15 years, I understand why.
With that in mind, here are three strategies you can employ to bridge the gap between your workplace expectations and employees' desire for flexibility.
1. Set clear expectations
For remote or hybrid work to serve the organization and the employees, you must set very explicit expectations. That means outlining roles and responsibilities and setting standards for success. It means charting timelines for projects and identifying and tracking metrics. It even means pivoting these goals as needed in pursuit of your overall company mission.
Then, repeat those expectations over and over again. Repetition, after all, is key to memory. Ed Cooke, a grand master of memory who can memorize the order of a shuffled card deck in less than a minute, recommends a technique called "mega-drilling," which dictates that you must actively recall something 30 times before it can be committed to memory.
One way you can continue to reinforce your expectations is through weekly team check-ins. At EOS, for example, we engage in what we call "level 10 meetings" once a week. During these meetings, we check in with our teams, look at scorecards (which is our way of measuring performance) and identify/discuss any obstacles. Having these weekly touchpoints is critical to keeping everyone on the same page, no matter where they're working.
2. Have continuous one-on-one conversations
When's the last time you chatted with your employees one on one outside of an annual performance review? If it's been longer than a quarter, you're well overdue for an open-ended discussion in a comfortable, non-virtual environment (maybe a coffee shop or a park). Nothing about this conversation should be documented or sent to human resources.
Sit down with your employees and talk about what's working and what's not, their quarterly "rocks" or priorities, the company's core values, etc. Basically, you're trying to gauge your alignment with one another. Does this person have the natural aptitude to perform in their role? Do they possess the mental and physical time capacity? If the answer is "no," this conversation will help you identify the gaps before an employee is halfway out the door.
Unsurprisingly, having these human-to-human interactions has also been shown to help increase engagement, which has stagnated since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Gallup. In fact, a Quantum Workplace survey found that employees who have monthly conversations have the highest levels of engagement compared to those who have quarterly, biannual or annual conversations.
3. Bring your vision and organizational chart to life
When your employees work from home most or all the time, it's easy for them to lose sight of how they fit into the larger business. However, your teams must understand the people components within your organization (i.e. how your company is organized) and the vision of your company (i.e. the core values and focus) to engender a sense of belonging. According to one study of 2,000 participants, about one-quarter of employees quit their jobs in 2021 because they didn't feel like they belonged at the company.
Outlining the various departments, how they're organized and who's in charge of what also helps employees understand the dynamics of the business. For instance, who should they approach for help if they're struggling with a project? An organizational chart will expressly showcase the reporting structure, helping eliminate breakdowns in the chain of command.
Virtual and hybrid work environments aren't a panacea, but they are attractive employee benefits. If you're trying to force your employees to return to the office, reconsider. Employees will likely rebuke those attempts, and you'll be left filling empty seats. Instead, put practices in place to bridge the gap between your expectations for employees and their desire for flexibility in when, how and where they work.