By Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, Behavioral Health Team Leader, Sedgwick
Our concept of the classic office workplace changed historically in 2021 and there is no going back. Over the decades, workplaces have changed from offices with doors to cabin-shaped “farms”, to long desktop workstations and open floor plans. Now, after 18 months of work in our homes, kitchens, guest rooms and everywhere in between, we have reached another turning point.
But after months of uncertainty, employees are finally packing up their home offices and returning to their employer’s physical office locations either part-time or full-time. However, many workers are not too keen on this prospect.
A survey from August 2021 by The conference board found that more than a third of US workers could leave their jobs within the next six months, and labor agreements are important to that decision for a whopping 80% of that group.
If flexible working time models are so important, but at the same time hiring quality talent is so difficult, the key question for companies when they return to office is: Why?
The question of why is an essential question in the modern office puzzle. Employers have a business need for teams to do their best and managers to perform at their best. In 2021 this will take place in an unconventional way – so what does the evolving workplace look like and how can employers meet the new needs of their employees?
The jobs may be the same, but the people have changed
Evolution is the product of successful adaptation over time. In the case of the recent health crisis, workers have been subject to major change over a sufficiently long period of time for everyone to get used to something new. People who have been working from home since March 2020 are now used to the differences in their lives, from commuting time to preparing meals to new pets acquired during the lockdown. Many parents have regained family time and found new ways to adapt to their children’s schedule with school time.
These changes are rooted in something much deeper than schedules and meeting times – quality of life factors are at the heart of workers’ desire to stay home. After 18 months of zooming into our colleagues’ living rooms, we have adapted to the idea that employees are people whose lives are not about work. Our work and personal lives have merged in an irreversible way, and workplaces need to adapt accordingly.
The management has also changed
The mindset of workers has changed, but senior or even middle management executives in large teams have also seen a change in their work style and priorities.
Over the past few months, managers have found that people management strategies that worked two years ago don’t work today. The proof: Employees have quit in droves and found new roles in which they do not have to deal with stressful work styles or tough management practices.
Executives and managers should focus on promoting the mental health and growth of their teams to counter the quick exit of so many disgruntled workers. Employers need to be proactive in building flexibility for their employees – although this means employees need to return to the office in order for executives to successfully implement the return to office, they need to be flexible in planning to accommodate the wishes of the employees needs to adapt to suit their specific lifestyle. This can mean adaptable logon times, hybrid work schedules, four-day work weeks, or more flextime options depending on the company or the client’s business goals.
Careful preparation and communication are key for leaders
In the midst of employee and manager attitudes changes, CEOs or executives who set the agenda for the future workplace should carefully plan the steps to return to the office.
They should share their plans months in advance and keep in touch with employees frequently, or you might be surprised if employees react to a change that is too quick and leave the company. Ideally, it takes people at least 6-8 weeks to plan a return to work – this is especially important for workers with childcare offers that have increasingly failed this year.
Executives should also plan to use either one-on-one conversations with employees or team-wide video calls rather than email. The silence inherent in email communication with remote workers just doesn’t work for shifts like returning to the office – people need human touchpoints.
To make the transition back to the office easier, an employee wellbeing check-in questionnaire can both help identify employees who may need individual flexibility or additional coaching, and create individual coaching plans for employee mental health and retention. Executives need to accept that returning to the office will be difficult for some post-pandemic people, even those who are ready to return. Some employees actually look forward to returning but experience stress from major life changes.
Customize return to office
As soon as employees return to the office, flexible as they are, attention to employee attitudes doesn’t stop – remember, development is permanent. Managers should be trained to look for mental health warning signs such as burnout, anxiety, and isolation at all levels of the organization.
Leaders are encouraged to acknowledge and share some of their own challenges. Shared experiences can reassure employees that they are not alone with these situations.
While employees will continue to adapt to society-wide development throughout the rest of the year, honest, flexible, and humane leadership will facilitate change and encourage them to remain part of your team.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.