With pandemic-related lockdowns being lifted around the world, businesses are announcing plans to bring employees back into the office.
Considering the widespread isolation and Zoom fatigue of the past year, one might expect employees to welcome a return to the office. Instead, they’re resisting. In fact, early reports are suggesting that many employees would rather quit their jobs rather than return to the office. Why?
Reasons for employee resistance
The COVID-19 pandemic has had big implications for the relationship between employees and employers.
For one, it’s revealed how many employers profoundly mistrust their employees’ ability to get their work done without in-person supervision. It’s no wonder that when faced with a hot post-pandemic economic recovery, employees are choosing to find a new employer over returning to a boss and organization that lacked trust in them during the pandemic.
Second, working from home has revealed that employees can have it all and they don’t want to lose this privilege. A recent survey showed that almost half of employees would look for a new employer rather than give up the ability to work from home at least part of the time.
The ability to pop out for a spin class in the middle of the afternoon or pick up the kids from school early reflect the type of flexibility that many employees simply don’t want to give up. They’re resisting a return to the nine-to-five facetime culture of pre-pandemic times.
Third, firms have been inept at maintaining a cohesive workplace culture during the pandemic. Many employees report feeling “left behind” by bosses who did not provide adequate support during the pandemic. A recent survey by an employee engagement company suggests that 46 per cent of employees felt less connected to their employer during the pandemic, while 42 per cent say company culture has become worse during the crisis.
This isn’t surprising because research has shown that, if not managed properly, employees in virtual teams can feel “shunned and left out.” The new “work from anywhere” movement is allowing employees to choose flexibility over allegiance to employers they have become disconnected from over the last year and a half.
What can employers do about it?
High employee turnover is unwelcome news for employers. Given the high costs of employee training, keeping a good employee is far cheaper than hiring a new one. Her are four proposals for employers to stave off employee turnover during the return to in-person work:
- Offer flexibility The major reason employees want to continue working remotely is flexibility and the ability to improve their work-life balance. While there are undeniable benefits for in-person work like spontaneous interactions, better supervision and more opportunities for mentoring, they don’t negate the advantages of working from home. Employers must consider the possibility of allowing employees to work from home at least part-time, moving towards a hybrid workplace that allows both in-person and remote working opportunities.
- Reinforce the best of your workplace culture The move towards a hybrid workplace creates the challenge of fostering a workplace culture that is consistent online and in-person. What matters to your organization? If inclusion is a priority, remote work can provide the opportunity to bring in hires from around the world that otherwise would not be available. If training and mentorship are most important, think about how online tools can be used to foster these types of relationships. Whatever it is that makes an organization unique should be fundamental to the practices that underpin the return to work.
- Show employees you care The post-pandemic economy is revving up. With many new opportunities for jobs both at home and abroad, employees will be able to choose where they want to work. The time is now for employers to show employees how they appreciate the resilience and flexibility they’ve shown during the pandemic. Supervisors should also meet with their employees and discuss their personal and professional goals. Retaining employees will depend on the ability to keep them motivated and engaged. This can include offering employees financial incentives while also offering the chance to get involved on new projects or on new work teams.
- Keep tabs on top performers The most expensive employees to replace (and the most in demand) will be top performers. Employers should hone in on these individuals and make sure that they are being offered the growth opportunities and recognition they desire.
Hopefully, the post-pandemic return to work will provide an opportunity for employers and employees to reconsider their relationships with one another. This is the time for a “new normal” that provides employees with opportunities for respect and empowerment in the workplace.
By: Erica Pimentel
Assistant Professor, Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, Ontario
Erica Pimentel receives funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.