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What we’re getting wrong in the return-to-office debate

May 12, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC
Bosses have had time to process a return to work. Workers haven't.
Martin Barraud—Getty Images

The announcements started slowly, but then the floodgates broke with reopening plans: Blackstone, Eli Lilly, the City of Chicago, the manufacturer of Dodge, Jeep and Fiat

What has caught some managers off guard is the emotional reaction to their edicts that it was time for employees to head back, in person. The staff of Washingtonian magazine staged a work stoppage on Friday after CEO Catherine Merrill wrote a column saying managers have “a strong incentive” to demote employees who don’t return to their offices.

According to PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, three-quarters of executives anticipate at least half their employees will be back in the office by July. But like all things in the COVID economy, this transition can’t just be rushed with an expectation of resuming business as usual. That’s especially true for caregivers, given that younger children still don’t have access to vaccinations, and many parents still don’t know what the next school year will look like. Here are some things employers need to remember about the fragile states of their workforces and why announcements about what comes next need careful crafting. 

Time to process

In October, Skillshare, an online learning company, decided to go fully remote. The decision was made after much deliberation and employee input, including surveys. In the end, a desire for equity and not favoring in-office staff over those working from home won. So it was decided: everyone would be distributed and could work from anywhere. Chief operating officer Sabrina Kieffer said the company made the decision early because many workers’ lives were hanging in limbo, from where they might live to childcare and schooling decisions. “We wanted to give people the clarity to make a decision early and live somewhat of a normal life again,” she said. 

The reaction surprised her. “We had been watching trends. The majority of the team wanted to be remote,” she said. “But people were not cheering up and down.”

In hindsight, she said, employees really needed time to accept the decision on their own timeline. “People hadn’t had the opportunity to work through all the feelings as I was making this decision,” said Kieffer, who herself left New York City for a house on Long Island with her husband and three kids as part of her pandemic transition; she describes the decision as a collaborative one. “We didn’t give people enough time to process.”

Everybody in the world has just lived through trauma 

Before she tells me what she wants to tell me, Philadelphia psychologist Robin Smith warns me she is very careful with words and chooses them deliberately…

No one,” she said, enunciating, “has gotten through this without being impacted in some way by a life-altering pandemic, which is a trauma. We are a traumatized nation.”

No one is exempt from trauma. 

When you hear that, it’s tough to think about a “return” to work. Did any co-workers die? How about the security guard or cafeteria cashier? Did people lose parents or loved ones? Are employees still worried about family or fellow colleagues overseas, where vaccines might not be as plentiful and COVID rates are still surging? All of these questions warrant exploration in relation to any workplace “return.”

Once the therapist-in-residence on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Smith recommends leaders be open, vulnerable and use multiple communication tools, including video, to advise employees on what’s going to happen next and the support they can expect. She asks CEOs to anticipate how their teams might be feeling and to ask for feedback in judgment-free zones. 

“The senior-most leadership must tell the truth about this transitional uncertain moment so it normalizes the uncertainty instead of pathologizes it,” she said. “No CEO has ever had to navigate this before. Presume that somewhere, something traumatic happened other than ‘I was locked in a house.’ Nobody came out of this unscarred.”

Working from home or the office need not be a binary choice 

Consider these findings from Tallo, an online student platform: 

  • The majority of Generation Z prefers hybrid work; 74% noted they’d prefer a job that offered both remote and in-person opportunities. 
  • 86% felt confident they will be just as productive working remotely.
  • In 2019, 51% of Gen Z considered location a very important factor in their job search. Mid-pandemic, that number dropped to 39%.

It’s worth remembering that members of this generation may have started work in the pandemic and have yet to meet co-workers, said Casey Welch, CEO of Tallo. Regardless of whether they are working from home or in an office, younger workers have made clear they want flexibility, access to upper management and adequate time to bond and collaborate with colleagues, he said: “We know that Gen Z looks to employers and managers who offer frequent daily standup meetings, roundtable discussions with executives, and social gatherings or team bonding events with colleagues.” 

Avoid one-size-fits-all approaches, says Laszlo Bock, co-founder and CEO of Humu, a behavioral-change technology company. “A successful hybrid approach for your sales team is going to look very different from what your marketing department needs,” Bock said. “Look for tools and approaches that enable you to offer the kind of personalized support to managers and their teams that enable them to figure out better ways of working together.”

Even vaccinated workers are not feeling out of the woods.

A big part of communications around returning to the office must dwell on the physical safety of the workplace: social distancing, ventilation, mask-wearing. A Morning Consult survey found nearly 40% of remote workers still feel uncomfortable returning to work. 

For UL, the global safety science company, this has led to opportunity as it works with buildings to verify they meet post-pandemic standards, such as in the areas of improved ventilation, air quality and elevator protocol. 

“Building owners, operators, employers must seek verification from experts in the safety and science fields that their facilities are safe,” said Jason Fischer, UL’s president of enterprise & advisory services. “Simply put, during a public health crisis, we must lead with science.”

The aversion to going back to the office is more an aversion to going back to what was 

It’s not the physical workplace but what it represents. 

That’s the message from workplace experts who say the pandemic forced workers to put up a mirror to their lives and work and assess purpose. A McKinsey survey of 800 U.S. workers found only one-third believe their organizations strongly connect actions to purpose. 

Workers want purpose from their companies, as well as support of their whole selves. 

Every Friday, employees at 15Five, a performance management platform, can sign off at 1 p.m for “best self time.” That means, says Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer, they must “take the time and space they need for self care that all too often falls off the priority list.”

To reinforce the company’s mission and how workers fit in, he said all-hands meetings are called “boosts” because they are designed to boost collective energy. The first five minutes of the meeting feature “exercises like interactive gratitude, reflections and micro lessons on a variety of topics.” 

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