The return to the office debate: three things to consider

safe, coping, employers, return

Returning to the office post-COVID hasn’t been seamless. Not just because of sporadic lockdowns which are continuing to affect states, but because gaining employee buy-in has been challenging. Especially for those who have adjusted to remote ways of working, or as is the case for younger gens, where values around remote and flexible working have finally been honoured.

The pandemic forced many workplaces into new ways of working where adopting remote working practices became an urgent requirement. Some workplaces were doing it, others had to learn how – especially if they wanted to survive.

The pandemic challenged the assumption that work must be done in an office. And while argument exists for a return to work based on industry or job type, the reality is the traditional assumption that “being in the office equates to productivity” was pulled apart.

Despite this, some workplaces are adopting a stricter policy, ignoring the amalgamation of hybrid models of working, and forcing employees back into the five-day return to the work grind.

For what purpose, is the fundamental question. The stats certainly don’t support it.

A study conducted by Citrix, which interviewed 2,000 respondents (millennials and Gen Z), found that over 90 per cent didn’t want to return to the office full time. Instead, they preferred a hybrid approach. The study also interviewed 1,000 business leaders and found a disconnect between managers/bosses and younger gens. In fact, 60 per cent of employers believed their millennial and Gen Z employees wanted to return to the office. This on its own, represents a disconnect and lack of communication between teams and leaders in the workplace.

Unless valid and legitimate reason for making employees return to the office exists, then workplaces have several challenges:

1. Engagement and performance

Forcing employees to do things they don’t want leads to bad attitude and resentment. Resentment leads to disengagement, and disengagement leads to poor performance. Business growth can’t be achieved with unhappy, disgruntled employees.

2. Culture and moral

The push to go back to the office reflects powerful statements about a workplace’s mentality: not listening to the needs of people, regression to outdated ways of working, inability to embrace technology and not valuing employees. All this festering within a culture of discontent.

3. Retention and recruitment

It’s highly likely that workplaces that are forcing employees back to the office are being led by leaders who are operating under old paradigms, where they want everyone to fall in line, keep quiet and follow. But th majority of the workforce is being powered by younger gens, who won’t sit back and follow – they’ll leave.

What’s the solution and how can workplaces mitigate risk?

  1. Identify the need. Is there a legitime business need for employees returning to the office? If there is, communicate the why. If there isn’t, then think about alternative ways.
  2. Listen. Take the time to listen to what your employees want. If you can’t adapt entirely, then find a middle ground.
  3. Compromise. Flexibility in some part, must be offered. Even if it’s the occasional shift in working hours, younger gens want to know something is being offered.
  4. Build trust. Older gens grew up in a culture where face time equated to productivity. That mentality may have worked once, but it doesn’t now. Studies suggest that employees are only productive for as little as three hours a day in the office. Instead, building in tools that instill trust, such as regular meetings or performance measures is helpful.

While moving into this post-pandemic world can be daunting for workplaces, it doesn’t have to be a challenge. It starts with understanding and accepting that the world is working in new and improved ways – and those ways must accommodate people.