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Working remotely is arguably the ultimate “will they, won’t they?” If business leaders had their way, workers collectively would have resumed their pre-pandemic patterns of office work just months after the initial lockdowns. And indeed, some tried to call their employees back to the office in late 2020. Others, such as Google and Apple, were targeting the fall of 2021. Unfortunately for them delta and ommicron variants had other plans.
However, a large percentage of employees do not quietly return to their workplace. According to a recent study by the Future Forum Pulse, 76% of employees don’t want to work full-time in the office anymore, and they’re willing to make the way back to the office anything but instant. A global survey of more than 32,000 employees found that: almost two thirds are willing to resign from their position if they have been given a return mandate. And with 47 million American workers resigning in 2021 alone would not be wise to bluff.
Related: Turning the tide on the big layoff
Why employers insist on work in the office
To understand the discrepancy between employee demands and employer expectations, you must first understand why employers want employees back at their desks in the first place. For the most part, they don’t implement a return to office policy because employees don’t get their jobs done. Research even shows that productivity increases by about 13% when employees are allowed to work from home at least part of the time.
Rather, asking employees to return to office work is often a fear-based response to a perceived lack of control. If you’re in the office, you think, you can just walk down the hall to talk to direct reports. You can see them working at their desks or participating in meetings. That line of sight gives you a sense of control. Conversely, when everyone works from different locations, you might fear that you’re not maximizing your return on people, even if your employees haven’t given you reason to think so.
To be fair, there are valid reasons for wanting to return to the office. For starters, not all employees do well in virtual environments. For relational employees, for example working from home can have an insulating effect. per hour survey from Airtasker, about 70% of employees consider social relationships with colleagues important. These people crave those spontaneous interactions with water coolers that Slack and Zoom just can’t deliver.
In addition, when work and home life fades, it becomes increasingly difficult to disconnect from work. It is therefore no wonder that almost half of the professionals who switched to a remote job in 2020, work more hours than before and that 70% work on weekends. Still, a large part of the workforce believes that the benefits of remote working outweigh the drawbacks, and as someone who has telecommuted for the past 15 years, I understand why.
With that in mind, here are three strategies you can use to bridge the gap between your workplace expectations and employees’ desire for flexibility.
1. Set clear expectations
To work remotely or hybridly for the benefit of the organization and its employees, you have to set very explicit expectations. That means defining roles and responsibilities and setting standards for success. It means mapping timelines for projects and identifying and tracking metrics. In fact, it means adjusting these goals as needed as you pursue your overall company mission.
Then repeat those expectations over and over. After all, repetition is the key to memory. Ed Cookea grandmaster of memory who can remember the sequence of a shuffled deck in less than a minute recommends a technique called “mega-drilling,” which dictates that you must actively recall something 30 times before it can be put into memory fixed.
One way you can continue to boost your expectations is through weekly team check-ins. At EOS, for example, we hold what we call ‘level 10 meetings’ once a week. During these meetings we check in with our teams, review scorecards (which is our way of measuring performance) and identify/discuss any obstacles. Having these weekly touch points is critical to keeping everyone on the same page no matter where they work.
Related: Back to the office: ways to improve employee expectations in 2022
2. Have continuous one-to-one conversations
When was the last time you talked one-on-one with your employees outside of an annual performance review? If it’s been more than 15 minutes, you’re way too late for an open discussion in a comfortable, non-virtual environment (perhaps a coffee shop or a park). Nothing about this conversation should be documented or sent to Human Resources.
Sit down with your employees and talk about what works and what doesn’t, their quarter “rocks” or priorities, the company’s core values, etc. Basically, you’re trying to measure your alignment. Does this person have the natural aptitude to perform in their role? Do they have the mental and physical time capacity? If the answer is “no,” this conversation will help you identify the gaps before an employee is halfway through the door.
Unsurprisingly, having these human-to-human interactions also helps increase engagement, which has stalled since the start of the pandemic. according to Gallup. In fact, a Quantum Workplace Survey found that employees who make monthly calls have the highest levels of engagement compared to those who make quarterly, bi-annual or annual calls.
Related: 5 tips for conducting a successful annual employee review
3. Bring your vision and org chart to life
When your employees work from home most or all of the time, it’s easy for them to lose track of how they fit into the larger company. However, your teams need to understand the human components within your organization (i.e. how your business is organized) and your company’s vision (i.e. its core values and focus) to create a sense of belonging. According to a survey of 2000 participants, about a quarter of the employees quit their jobs in 2021 because they didn’t feel like they belonged with the company.
Outlining the different departments, how they are organized and who is in charge of what also helps employees understand the dynamics of the company. For example, who should they approach for help if they are struggling with a project? An organizational chart will explicitly display the reporting structure, thus avoiding disruptions in the chain of command.
Virtual and hybrid work environments are not a panacea, but they are attractive employment conditions. If you’re trying to force your employees to return to the office, reconsider. Employees will likely reject those attempts and you will continue to fill empty seats. Instead, adopt practices to bridge the gap between your expectations for employees and their desire for flexibility in when, how and where they work.