As people in the United States start thinking about what the new “normal,” post-first-wave-of-COVID may look like now that many of us are vaccinated, company leaders are increasingly faced with how to entice employees back to the office. While office life may have been the center of the corporate world before the pandemic hit, some experts think we may not see the same in-office boom again once we all begin to safely open our offices to fully vaccinated employees. Here’s how leaders can help encourage a safe, healthy, and supportive transition back to in-office work.
Understand Why Some Employees Don’t Want to Come Back to the Office
Pick up any national newspaper, and you’ll see a swath of headlines proclaiming that the American workforce is quitting in droves and doesn’t want to go back to the office ever. Because there is some truth in these stories, it’s essential to understand why employees are leaving their jobs at an excessive level and why they don’t want to come back to the office.
First, it’s important to get a grasp on the real numbers. A survey of 1,000 people done by a company called Morning Consult in May of this year noted that 40 percent of those surveyed said they would quit their jobs if they were forced to go back to the office full-time. Reasons for this varied from avoiding heinous commute times to simply saving money, among others. When employees don’t have to spend on gas, transportation, coffee, or meals, they have found that they save a considerable amount of cash. During the pandemic, savings rates increased significantly—by as much as four times—and Americans saved more than $91 billion by not commuting to the office. Those are significant factors that most employees consider when thinking about being forced to go back to the office.
Secondly, as a company leader, you have to understand the fear and unease that people still have around returning to the office. Over the last year, we all learned to adapt to Zoom schooling and found a way to get dinner on the table between conference calls. We’ve adapted to a new way of life, and while the initial change was painful for many people, it’s now become a regular way of life. Fear always comes up when there is a potential change in routine, and it can be difficult for families that have been under so much stress over the last year to adapt again.
Add to this the fact that the COVID-19 virus, simply put, is not a joke. It’s a severe, highly contagious illness that has claimed the lives of nearly 600,000 Americans so far. A new variant, called the Delta variant, is rapidly spreading all over the world and is just starting to emerge in the States. The current vaccines are slightly less effective against this strain, and it’s even more contagious than the original strain. As of this writing, the Delta variant is responsible for one in five COVID infections in the U.S.
It’s natural for everyone to feel fearful of catching COVID-19, especially if they are part of a vulnerable population or are the caretakers of someone who is vulnerable. At this point, children under age 12 are still not able to get vaccinated, according to the CDC, and the long-term effects of contracting COVID at such a young age are as yet unknown. Your own young children possibly falling ill because you contracted COVID at the office is a real threat, and for a lot of employees, this may be a non-starter for returning to the office.
Finally, as a company leader and human being, you must acknowledge the pandemic’s impact on our collective mental health. For many people, being in enclosed, indoor spaces with unmasked colleagues might be anxiety-inducing. Living under the constant threat of an unseen, sometimes deadly virus has taken a toll on all of us, and forcing employees to come back into the office against their will is a bad idea. That being said, there are a few things you can do as a leader to encourage employees to return to the office.
Set Clear, Transparent Parameters for Health and Safety
To disperse some of the fear that many employees have around getting sick, it’s absolutely vital to create a clear, easy-to-follow, and transparent process for ensuring that your employees are safe and healthy.
Whether that means requiring proof of vaccination or mask-wearing in enclosed, indoor spaces is up to the leadership of your business. You should have clear and effective deep-cleaning and sanitization processes for the entire office both throughout the day and at the end of the day so that employees can feel better about being in the office with other people. Leaders also need to consider what the process is for handling a COVID-19 outbreak in the office and what it might mean for business—whether it disrupts business or not.
The other thing leaders should consider includes changing the layout of offices to create better airflow, put more space between employees, and encourage better hygiene. One way to tackle this is to consider implementing a hybrid schedule that allows set smaller groups of employees to be in the office at the same time each week. This is beneficial because it can help control transmission rates of the virus should someone fall ill as well as tracing possible infections.
Once you’ve set those boundaries, you need to communicate them to your entire staff so that everyone knows what the rules of office life are in the post-pandemic era. If you expect everyone to wear masks or show their vaccination status, you must tell your team that. It also helps to let people know what the cleaning processes and virus mitigation protocols are should an outbreak occur.
Recognize That What Employees Want Has Changed
While there are many people who will welcome the return to the office, many employees no longer want to gather around the water cooler or have work outings. The pandemic accelerated the availability and security of technology that allows us to work remotely without jeopardizing company information. Employees recognize this, so making the argument that people need to be in the office for security reasons holds no water anymore. The truth is that afternoon yoga classes and free food are no longer perks most employees want. They want flexibility more than any perk or benefit you might be able to offer to entice them to come into the office.
In addition to this, employees will expect the same grace and tolerance we all extended one another when our home and work lives collided during the pandemic. That means if employees have to work remotely because they have a sick child or need to take care of themselves in some way, leaders must give them that ability in order to retain their talent. In this new world, employees won’t tolerate being told that they have to clock specific hours in the office to remain employed. As recent news reports have shown, more employees have no problem leaving a job that doesn’t meet their needs. Leaders need to be ready to accommodate employees.
Allow Employees to Make Their Own Choices
We’re working and living in a new world, and that means leaders need to be okay allowing employees to have flexibility in their choices around returning to the office. One sure way to shoot yourself in the foot as a leader is to demand that every employee return. You’ll alienate your best employees, and you’re highly likely to lose a significant swath of your talent. Whatever choices employees make about how frequently they want to be back in the office, leaders must take their feedback and concerns to heart. Great leaders cannot ignore what employees tell them.
On the flip side, it’s vital to understand that no matter what you do or what policies you implement, some employees will simply decide that your requirements for office time don’t work for them. It’s important to simply let these people make their own decisions about whether to remain with the company or leave. While it hurts to lose valuable employees, if you’ve set clear guidelines for what you expect of your employees in this new world, you have to let them make their own decisions.
Know that no matter what you decide in terms of requirements for in-office presence, you will not please everyone. As long as you have created a safe, clear, and inclusive process for ensuring that employees feel comfortable returning to the office, employees will likely return.