Ian McGrath has made it clear to his bosses: if the company forces staff to return to the office, he’ll tender his resignation.
The Halifax-area technology worker says he’s thriving working from home. His productivity has soared, his last annual review exceeded expectations and he’s now one of the company’s top performers. “I’ve also achieved a much better work-life balance,” he says. “I’m healthier, happier and more productive.”
As pandemic restrictions are lifted and case numbers ease, some companies want workers back in the office five days a week. On the other side of the spectrum, others are vacating pricey leases in prime downtown areas and asking employees to work remotely for good. Many others are adopting a hybrid model, varying from a flexible approach to mandating specific days workers must report to the office for duty.
Yet after more than two years of Zoom calls and Slack chats from home, wearing comfy pants and having more time for kids or exercise or reading, employees may be resistant to returning to the office.
“Some employers just want to flip a switch and turn back time to how things were,” says Catherine Connelly, human resources and management professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business and Canada Research Chair in organizational behaviour. “It’s wishful thinking. If you look at any other past pandemic . . . behaviours just did not reset to how things were.”
A return to the office doesn’t affect all workers equally, she adds. “If you’ve got a nice big office with a door that closes and maybe a dedicated parking space, that’s very different than someone being asked to work from a noisy cubicle with a lot of interruptions.”
The key to a successful return-to-office plan is flexibility and taking it slow, say experts. If employees feel like they’re being coerced into returning to the office, they’ll push back.
“If people perceive it as control being taken away from them, you’re going to get resistance,” says Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks Inc. “Two years is a long time for habits to become ingrained and people don’t like change. It won’t change overnight.”
The desire to attract employees back to offices with perks such as free food has been a boon for startups like Hungerhub, a corporate catering technology platform that delivers lunches to workplaces from local restaurants.
“I think we’re seeing a carrot-and-stick approach to getting employees back in the office and this is a carrot,” says Sari Abdo, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based startup. “Companies are saying, ‘Don’t worry about food, don’t worry about meal planning, just come on in.'”
While a free lunch is a nice gesture, companies do have the right to call employees back into the office — no incentive required, says employment lawyer Hermie Abraham.
“This is the employer’s legal right and decision as to how they wish to implement return-to-work plans. People may feel like they should have the right to continue working from home but unless there’s a human rights consideration, they don’t.”
Still, Abraham says a best practice would be to allow a gradual return to the office, particularly given the current red hot labour market. “There is going to be a war for talent in some positions and the more accommodating and flexible you are as an employer, the greater chances that you’ll win.”