Employers need to listen to staff on return-to-office concerns

Before new working practices are set in stone firms need to be sure what workforce wants

Let’s talk. Two little words that sound innocent enough but are about as loaded as they come because of where the talking might lead. An invitation to talk suggests something big is at stake and as the return to the office gathers momentum, what’s at stake for many is the future structure of their working lives. Of growing concern is that this talk is happening too much at executive level only, leaving rank and file employees feeling left out in the cold.

“Before Covid I just accepted having to get up early, having to wear a suit and putting up with the hassle of a commute as the price you paid for having a job, but Covid has blown that out of the water,” says an accountant in his late 20s working for a city-based business. “I don’t mind going in if I’m needed, but not for the sake of presenteeism. Our managers have decided we should all be back, no discussion. These guys need to get real, give us options and accept that the business didn’t implode because we weren’t all sitting in the same room. If the commute becomes an issue, I will change job.”

This grassroots discontent is typical of the gap opening up between employers and managers who want their people back in the office and employees who do not want a return to the old ways. One explanation being put forward for the disconnect is that owners/managers tend to have more skin in the game and greater job satisfaction. For them, being in the office is part and parcel of the satisfaction buzz. However, this is not necessarily how the rest of the workforce feels. Consequently, the mechanics of where and when they will be allowed to work is a much bigger deal for them. This ongoing uncertainty around what new rules might apply is creating uneasiness and driving flexibility to rival compensation as one of the main factors determining whether some stays in their existing job or looks for a new one.

"The mood music on the return to the office depends on organisation size, sector, location and the role a person has within it, but the challenge facing everyone now is balancing the needs of the organisation with the needs of the individual employees," says Pam Fay, lead lecturer on UCD's diploma in Business & Executive Coaching.


What's becoming clear is that the shape of the great return is going to evolve over time

“Individual needs are just that, individual. Everyone is different and everyone’s experience of working from home has been different and related to age and stage. Some people are really feeling the loss of connection with their colleagues, and ultimately their organisation, which is another reason why the ‘great resignation’ we keep hearing about is happening.

‘A sense of culture’

“At leadership level I’m seeing managers grappling with how to lead, manage, and create a sense of culture in what is likely to become a hybrid working environment. Companies really need to talk to their employees and move past the ‘this is our policy’ stance to a place where they can re-establish and co-create a new culture that supports different ways of working,” she adds.

"One thing that leaders need to do is to take care of themselves so they can provide hope, optimism and direction for their teams. In recent weeks I have noticed a real 'funk' among my coaching clients and in the ether with my colleagues. Optimism is missing and I think the emergence from Covid will take us longer than we thought. We can't just switch back to how work was before," adds Fay, who is part of the team running a series of coaching for impact courses at the Smurfit Graduate Business School designed to help leaders develop skills to support better conversations with employees.

While it's true that businesses can survive and thrive in turmoil, most people do better when they have a degree of certainty and, according to McKinsey, some companies are getting it wildly wrong when it comes to having the sort of reassuring conversations people need about returning to the office. "Many announcements to date have been rule-based, inflexible, and have treated remote work as a perk, rather than a pandemic necessity that proved to be quite successful for many," it says in a thought piece called Your return to office announcements are missing the mark: Here's how to get them right, authored by three of its consultants.

“The rigidity of communications anchored in policies can feel highly transactional and undermine employees’ sense of being valued.”

The piece identifies five strategies for successfully communicating return-to-the-office plans including seeing the process as a two-way dialogue, not falling into a one-size-fits-all mindset, being clear why turning up in person may be needed at times and acknowledging that asking people to go back to the office may have knock-on implications for the life situations and caring responsibilities they have had to take on during the pandemic. If this is the case what can an employer do to help?

What’s also becoming clear is that the shape of the great return is going to evolve over time. Some things will work, others won’t, and organisations need to be open to pivots. The pandemic was a turning point in work practices. What some organisations may be missing in their rush to resume normal service is that hanging on to unnecessary remnants of the past is likely to impede recovery and lead to an exit of talent.