When employees don’t want to return to the office

14 June, 2021

As lockdowns start to lift, some employees are looking forward to being back in the office. Some are dreading going back. Leaders must handle this with care.

As the devastating second wave in India comes under control, several states are announcing that offices can reopen gradually. Many employees are eagerly looking forward to this – but others are apprehensive and reluctant. Managers may be met with responses such as “I’ve been so productive at home, can’t I work like this permanently?” or “I still don’t feel safe going back to office”.

The way the world works has undergone a seismic shift over the past 15 months, ever since the pandemic triggered an abrupt switch to remote work. Some companies have welcomed the change and kept it going, including Salesforce and Spotify. Even legacy players like Ford and PWC have indicated their support for a more flexible model. Others, however, can’t wait for everyone to get back to the office. In February, David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, said the following about WFH:

I do think for a business like ours which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.

Indeed, the nature of your business will play a key role in mapping the way forward – and so will the mindset of the company’s leadership. And what about employees? How do you feel about the remote work vs. office work debate? According to a large-scale survey in the US, there are plenty of people on both ends of the spectrum. While 21% of employees never want to spend another day working from home, 32% said they never want to go back to the office. Around 50% are in between and want some kind of hybrid model. Can we infer a similar trend in India?

So, what happens when the views of leaders and employees are not aligned? Some believe that organisations are well within their rights to demand a full-time return to the office. But others think that such a diktat could have a counter-productive effect on employee wellbeing, productivity and loyalty. Given what we have all been through this past year, it’s best if companies tackle this issue with care and compassion.

This week, my message focuses on how leaders can handle team members who are hesitant to return to the office. What steps can we take to make the transition smoother? And is it also time for us to rethink traditional norms around work-from-office?

A shifting reality

We are all facing changing circumstances and expectations. At the end of March, Amazon indicated that it planned to “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline”. Just last week, however, the company relaxed its return-to-work plans and said it would allow corporate employees to work remotely two days a week. According to Amy C. Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, it’s important for companies to be flexible when it comes to remote work – without taking things too far:

Just because we’ve managed to weather this storm, doesn’t mean it’s an optimal way to work. If you’re in a shipwreck and a piano top floats by, it becomes a lifesaver. But it’s not the way you would have designed a lifesaver.

Research has also shown that working from home puts employees at a disadvantage when it comes to getting recognised and promoted. Being tuned in to office happenings and staying in regular touch with co-workers seems to be a prerequisite for career progression.

The nature of the employee’s job also plays a role. Certain responsibilities are easier to fulfil at a distance, over computer screens and emails. Other functions seem to work better in person: brainstorming and developing new ideas, guiding and mentoring, building relationships, and so on. In her Forbes article, Dr Margie Warrell says:

A senior executive of a large consultancy recently told me that employees who are willing to meet with prospects and clients face-to-face will almost certainly outperform those who are not and be rewarded accordingly. This isn’t discrimination. It’s just business. Building rapport, establishing trust and countering concerns, particularly for more complex products and services, is easier done in person.

For leaders whose team members are reluctant to come back to office, here are eight suggestions to navigate the transition that lies ahead:

1. Investigate the hesitation.

As a manager, your first priority is to figure out why certain team members don’t want to return to the office. Now isn’t the time to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Remember, not everyone is in the same situation. Some people may need more accommodations over the next few months – and that’s okay!

Do employees want to work at home temporarily, due to the pandemic? Maybe they haven’t been vaccinated yet, or have at-risk family members to think about. With schools still closed and help hard to find, many people are still caring for children and older family members – which makes coming back to the office full-time more challenging.

For others, the desire to work remotely could be more fundamental. Maybe it has done wonders for their mental health, or sent their productivity soaring. The more you know about the “why”, the better equipped you are to figure out “what next”.

2. Take a thoughtful approach.

Penalising employees for their concerns is likely to create ill-will. Some companies have taken a strong stand on this – only to be met with unexpected pushback. In May, Washingtonian Media CEO Catherine Merrill wrote a column saying that managers have a “strong incentive” to demote employees who prefer not to come back to the office. Staff went on strike the very next day, taking to social media to express their outrage. Even if your team is unlikely to take such drastic action, it’s worth considering the resentment you may trigger.

3. Balance today and tomorrow.

Build a short-term plan that addresses your employees’ current fears around health, childcare, etc. At the same time, it’s important to establish mutual commitments around your longer-term strategy. It’s best if leaders do this through honest conversations with their teams. Take a collaborative approach: talk about lessons learned during the lockdown, and how you can use them to improve structures and processes going forward.

4. Bring purpose back to work.

WFH forced us to slow down and reassess our priorities. Many people found a new purposefulness, which they are eager to preserve even after returning to the office. Leaders can support this desire by re-instilling a sense of purpose at work. Make time to talk about the company’s vision, mission and values, preferably before the scheduled reopening. Draw a clear connection between the team’s day-to-day actions and the big-picture goals of the organisation.

5. Emphasise the benefits of office days.

There’s a good reason why most leaders can’t wait to get back to the office. Interacting with your team in person, with everyone in the same room, is an incredible experience. Working out of a common space is vital to forming relationships and creating a shared culture. And as surveys show, a majority of employees seem to agree. For most people, connecting and building a rapport with co-workers is one of the best parts of their job!

Go ahead and remind your team about what they’ve been missing. While they may not feel comfortable coming back to work right away, they will probably be eager to do so eventually – once the COVID threat subsides and a degree of normalcy returns.

6. Don’t let a few bad apples cloud your judgment.

As you consider the possibility of a hybrid model, try to be objective. In her Harvard Business Review article, Liz Kislik points out that concerns about 1-2 employees can turn leaders against remote work as a whole. Ask yourself: Do I have those same concerns about team members I consider to be responsible and motivated? Kislik gives an example: 

I used this technique successfully with a leader who believed that employees were “getting away with” the equivalent of playing hooky. Once I got her to articulate the specifics of which people she believed were taking advantage and which were not, we were able to focus on what we could do to improve the unsatisfactory performance of individuals rather than having her blame and disapprove of the entire team.

7. Keep diversity in mind.

The impact of the pandemic reflects society’s gender imbalance. From cooking and cleaning to childcare and eldercare, most additional household responsibilities have fallen to women. As a result, female team members could be likelier to want to continue working remotely, at least for now. Companies that force employees to return to the office right away could lose some of their female workforce and set back diversity by years.

8. Allow time to process grief.

As employees prepare to return to the workplace, we must account for grief. Some have lost their colleagues, others are mourning family members or friends, yet others have personally battled COVID-19. People are still worried about loved ones who are at high risk or haven’t been vaccinated. They need time to process these complicated and intense feelings. Leaders can help their teams navigate this period by demonstrating care and compassion.

This pandemic didn’t come with a playbook. Whether going into lockdown or emerging from it, leaders and employees have had to figure things out themselves. We’ve experimented and learned, stumbled and succeeded – and we will continue to do so over the next several months. Even as offices begin to reopen, leaders should be thoughtful. Make time to address your team members’ concerns so everyone can move forward together.


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