Companies must have employee buy-in to return to the office

Getting employee buy-in to return to the office has proven to be quite difficult for some companies, with a worldwide trend for employees to rather resign than go back to the office fulltime.

Leaders in the workplace have to consider these matters, because many employees still feel uncertainty on whether it is safe to return, or in some cases worth it.

Bringing coherence and a new kind of clarity to the workplace will be the key to ensuring successful teams in a post-pandemic future.

“Companies and employees have been trying to find their feet on what remains shaky ground, with ongoing uncertainty over work-from-home compared to in-office and hybrid approaches,” says Debbie Goodman, CEO of search firm Jack Hammer.

“Expectations on the part of senior leaders are often in direct conflict with those of the broader workforce and the negative impact of this situation is exacerbated due to unarticulated needs, sentiments and beliefs from all parties.”

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Workplace has been disrupted

Goodman says it is necessary for all stakeholders, leaders and employees, to recognise that the workplace as we know it has been disrupted and now requires fresh thinking from different vantage points to formulate a healthier and clearer framework for the future.

Evidence shows that most employees, locally and globally, want to retain as much of the flexibility, autonomy and self-determination regarding work as possible and they are very reluctant to go back to pre-pandemic rigid work structures.

And when they feel this is imposed on them by management, a feeling that is common in workplaces everywhere, the result is resentment. This is what happened earlier in August with Apple’s mandate that employees return to the office for 3 days a week from 5 September.

“There are many examples and Apple’s employee predicament is but the latest example of the tug-of-war that continues between leadership and teams across the globe, including in South Africa. It is therefore necessary for everyone to get on the same page with some urgency before continuing down this path of uncertainty and incoherence,” Goodman says.

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Offering flexibility is a solution

She is in favour of allowing flexibility and common-sense and sees win-win solutions in the hybrid vs return to office debate but points out that it is important to communicate the purpose of the office where applicable, while balancing that with the ability to work from home where possible.

“Almost a year into our post-pandemic normalisation, data now shows clear evidence that there are certain elements of work that people are, for the most part, substantially worse off working on their own remotely.

“The negative impact of remote work on the careers and professional development of remote workers is starting to become more noticeable. Add to this recent research studies that show how certain groups of workers want more in-person time with their teams and we have a very complex scenario to address and manage in the hybrid world of work.”

Goodman says people who work remotely battle to build culture and feel a sense of belonging, collaborate on projects, learn through mentorship, build social and professional capital, network with cross-functional teams and spark innovation.

 Due to proximity bias and presenteeism, recent data also shows that people who choose remote work options are 50% less likely to be considered for promotion.

“The way to get employees to buy in to spending time in the office on a synchronous basis, meaning people need to be there at the same time in order to reap the benefits of being in person, is to be intentional about the types of meetings and connections that will take place during this time.”

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An intentional purposeful place to work

She says when the office becomes an intentional purposeful place to do work in a way that is not easily replicable remotely or asynchronously, people start to see the value of returning to the office.

How often people need to be in the office will differ from one team and company to the next, with some ‘remote first’ companies choosing to bring people together as little as once to three times per year and others testing out more frequent, weekly synchronous time, Goodman says.

“The point here is that when ‘the office’ is considered a tool, channel or device to achieve outcomes that are beneficial and supportive of individual and company goals, there is significantly greater buy-in from everyone.”

However, this could be quite complex to organise. Goodman says hybrid working is complex, but companies that are unwilling to embrace the challenges of establishing new norms around ‘the workplace’ are going to suffer the consequences of being last in line for top talent.

“We know that people are choosing hybrid roles where they are able to retain their flexibility. Companies who supplement this with high quality, purposeful in-office time will undoubtedly be leading the pack.”

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