More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic shifted many white-collar employees to remote working, some employers are planning their return to the office — even if it means bringing staff back kicking and screaming.
Earlier this month, Tesla Inc. founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk made waves when, in internal emails, he demanded employees return to the office full time or risk losing their jobs, as reported by the New York Times. While the jury’s out on whether Tesla and SpaceX employees will comply with Musk’s demand, other employers’ return-to-office plans have already been met with resistance.
In March, nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of roughly 1,000 Google workers said they’re unhappy with the company reopening its offices on April 4, according to a survey by employment social network Blind. It found a similar percentage of Google workers were dissatisfied with a company directive to be in the office three days a week.
“At any point in a relationship, you can absolutely give your partner an ultimatum; however, the question is to what extent do you value that relationship over the issue?” says Arla Day, professor of occupational health psychology at Saint Mary’s University. “Employers have to consider how much they value onsite working versus the relationship with their workers. If they feel the issue is more important than employees, then they can mandate away. If the relationship is as — or more — important, employers should try to find a mutually acceptable resolution.”
While employees may comply with a return-to-office mandate, they may see it as a violation of trust, explains Day. Since people were working remotely during the pandemic, it’s certainly possible to continue this policy, she says, adding employers need to be honest about the feasibility of working from home and consider their workers’ wishes. As well, she says employees’ reluctance to return to in-person work has merit, noting they’re citing reasons like the lack of a commute, health and safety concerns, increased flexibility and more productivity.
Staff may leave a company if their preferred work arrangement isn’t available, so employers should consider whether they’ll be able to hire talent to replace them with a return-to-office mandate in place, notes Day. “If talent retention is critical, companies should offer employees remote or hybrid options or make their compensation package so enticing that people who don’t want to be in office every day are willing to make that sacrifice.”
“Employers need to understand their employees more than they have in the past when they just offered a salary and a standard benefits program,” says Janet Candido, founder and principal of Candido Consulting Group.
During the last two years, employees have only interacted with colleagues through virtual calls, so a transitional, hybrid period will give them time to adjust to in-person interactions again, she points out. And there are positive aspects of telecommuting that have made the working environment more pleasant for some staff, including fewer microaggressions and unconscious bias for minorities, more accessibility for employees with disabilities and more work-life balance for caregivers. A hybrid working arrangement would also help reduce employees’ stress about the impending return, she adds.
Candido cautions that reverting back to old processes and policies after a disruption such as the current public health crisis isn’t always wise. She believes it’s an opportunity to evaluate whether past decisions and practices still make sense, noting employers can leverage data and performance metrics to build new policies.
In addition, it’s important for employers to consider whether remote working has impacted their businesses negatively, says Candido, referring to considerations like revenue streams, employee productivity, quality of work and employee engagement.
And if data shows that a return to office is best for a company’s bottom line, communication is key, advises Day. “Employers should work with employees and present their case using that data to demonstrate the need to return to office.”