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Disruption Looms as Employees Return to the Workplace

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 — July 6th, 2021

Disruption Looms as Employees Return to the Workplace

As the global disaster of our generation wanes and people begin to emerge from isolation, misaligned expectations about the future of remote work models have started to appear, with potentially damaging consequences.

Surveys show that much of the workforce has enjoyed the benefits of working from home – especially having more quality time with family and friends and freedom from commuting – and they don’t want to lose this.

Conversely, many employers are anxious to get employees back in the office – despite seeing higher productivity levels once people got used to the sudden plunge into remote working and all the teething problems that came with that.

They want people to return to the office and the traditional ways of engagement.

In short, Houston, we have a problem. Organizations are already experiencing this friction. Leadership must prevail to avoid serious business disruption.

This may be the moment when Hybrid Working rises to become an accepted practice in the corporate world.

How can organizations find a clear path forward?

Simply put, the expectations of the worker base have changed. Most embrace many of the benefits of remote work flexibility. A majority want to retain some, if not all, of these benefits.

How to Build a Communications Plan for a Hybrid Workplace

As employees are often considered the most important asset for success, employers are now faced with evaluating how a hybrid model may impact business operations, productivity, employee satisfaction, and achievement of business goals.

Happy employees are more productive. Supporting a flexible work model could go a long way to both attract and retain quality workers.

But a hybrid environment adds complexity, potentially more conflict, and possibly even inequity. Organizations must consider the business needs.

Workplace options and opportunities

The decision of where and how to work is not binary. As people emerge from their isolation cocoons, many want to get away from home to see coworkers and clients in person, and return to the office setting.

But often, people are expressing they want a situation that supports better flexibility and an enhanced work-life balance. There is no clear requirement for companies as they explore the options.

Even manufacturing operations, where the bulk of the workers are required to be physically present on an assembly line, may have back-office employees that don’t necessarily need to be in the office all the time.

Payroll, human resources, marketing, and salespeople might want flexibility.

Some businesses have already decided to fully embrace the remote model. Empty offices are no longer a necessary expense and are being sold or the leases are being allowed to expire.

Expenditures like electricity, office maintenance, and insurance can be wiped off the books.

Other companies are planning on a hybrid model where workers may only come into the office a few days of the week. That can reduce the overall requirements for space, utilities, and other costs while still supporting some face-to-face interaction.

Maintaining the remote-work capabilities remains an important corporate asset.

Lastly, there are businesses already planning the ‘welcome back to the office’ party, where everyone will return to their rightful place in their cubicle, station, or office.

Coffee and donuts will be the conciliatory offerings as managers will demand workers return to the office. These and many other permutations may not align with the desires of employees. In fact, they may actually create serious problems.

Everyone has a unique perspective of the benefits and drawbacks of working remotely. Their personal experiences have forged their opinions of what they want as employees.

Now is a good time for leaders to revisit policies, revise work practices, and consider evolving from traditional mindsets with a competitive attitude.

It is an opportune time to consider reforging the organization into a more agile and stronger organization! Exploration at a minimum is warranted.

Exploring Organizational Change

The first step is to establish a productive dialog between management and employees to understand how a new model could benefit the organization.

Communication, planning, and collaboration are crucial. Employees must feel that their voices are being heard and considered. Empathy, which was experienced during the lockdown, is a requirement to navigate this journey.

For many employees, their lives may be drastically different as compared to before the pandemic and everyday work in the office may not be desirable or feasible anymore.

Communication is key. Employees must feel safe in expressing their needs and limitations. Executives must be clear in their concerns and flexibility. These are unusual times and we must be sensitive to both the needs of employees and the success of the business.

Make no mistake, these are crucial discussions. Employee loyalty will be won or lost on this battlefield! They will remember how they were treated.

Was their company a great advocate, sensitive, and flexible or was their employer apathetic to their viewpoints, contributions, and needs?

How organizations approach this challenge will determine if they reinforce or undermine the dedication of their workforce.

Supporting Tools and Technology

If companies don’t proactively get ahead of the needs of employees, it can create chaos. This is true for expectations, emotional needs, and also for the tools and technologies they use to conduct work.

Take for example all those communication and data sharing tools that were the backbone of remote work. Even if the company IT department won't support them, workers will still use them for work, inside and outside the office.

Unmanaged technology tools create what is known as ‘shadow IT’, which can be a nightmare for an organization to control and can create vulnerabilities to the confidentiality of data and availability of operations.

It is better to be proactive in understanding the worker's needs and providing them the tools to be productive while also meeting security, safety, and privacy requirements.

Decisions and Clarity

Good decisions begin with good leadership. Decisions need to be made and communicated properly and in a timely manner.  Everyone hates ambiguity. Executives must decide if and how the organization will change. They are also responsible for deciding the path and timelines that will impact everyone.

Once a plan is finalized, start communication with the basics:

  • Will there be a physical office to return to and will the office arrangements be different?
  • What kinds of workers are allowed to work partially/fully remote and why?
  • How often do office workers need to come into the office and will there be flexibility?
  • Will work hours and schedules change?

Follow up with well-thought-out policies and procedures that reinforce corporate ethics, equality, and equity principles. For example, will people who choose to come into the office have an informal advantage for advancement?

Are there policies or processes that encourage or forbid such directions? Clarity is important.

Lastly, it is up to the leadership to not only communicate but also show by example. Policies remain weak until executives showcase them in their actions. Leaders lead from the front and during these uncertain times, employees need leadership to set a good example more than ever.

It is a time when great leaders emerge to build stronger teams and accomplish great goals.

The work environment is again shifting and many will be returning to a new normal that has yet to be determined by most organizations.

There will be challenges as part of the world shifts to a hybrid model, but proper leadership acting proactively can forge an optimal path for their business and employees.

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