Don't judge from yourself to others. Not everyone is looking forward to returning to the office. And something has happened to all of us in the last few months.
According to a survey by Deloitte, in Switzerland about 50% of employees worked within their own four walls after March 16, 2020 due to COVID-19.
After almost 3 months of home office, companies are gradually beginning to repopulate their offices. Many superiors can hardly wait to finally see their employees in person again.
But what do employees feel when they think about going back to the office on a regular basis? Have you asked them, and if so, has anyone dared to say that they would prefer to stay in their now-familiar home office and its surroundings?
Various conversations and reflections with people from different sectors led me to the following 3 hypotheses:
1) A significant proportion of employees are not looking forward to returning to the normal office environment
In recent weeks you could see them, the early office returnees. Mostly seen the superiors, who have to look after things on site and who hope to finally regain more control over their company and their team. But there are also the extroverted and communicative team members, who are among the first arrivals. They seek informal talks.
According to the Deloitte survey, almost 50% of respondents cited the lack of personal interaction with colleagues and customers as one of the biggest disadvantages of home office set-up. However, there are others. And they are not few. They feel comfortable in the home office, work very efficiently and effectively, and they appreciate the home-office set-up very much. This includes
the elimination of commuting time, which can now be used for sports or walks
lunches together with the family and the connection to the children, which has increased through the daily presence
shorter, more focused meetings
Everyone values different aspects. These depend on the personal situation and individual needs. Have you, as recommended by Anna Jelen, The Time Expert in her podcast "Do you have a plan?" already reflected for yourself what have you appreciated in the time since March 16, 2020? What have you missed? And what of the treasured would you like to maintain? I venture another hypothesis: I assume that for many of you the list of valued aspects is at least as long as the list of aspects you have missed.
So, what about the employees who are not looking forward to returning to the office regularly? Whether they are many or only a small part of the workforce is not really important. Because this feeling has nothing to do with the performance of the people in question, nor necessarily with the sense of loyalty that an employee feels towards the company. The situation and sentiments of each individual are very individual. As an entrepreneur or manager, it is your goal that your employees enjoy working for your company - no matter where. Because, what people like doing, they usually do well or very well.
Some of you may now frown and think: "How can you not feel like going back to the office, when according to Seco in Switzerland, around 2000 people lose their jobs every working day. And at a time when a third of the workforce is affected by short-time working. One should be glad to have a job after all." But what the individual experiences emotionally and what rationally can and should be argued are two separate aspects. If people are only rationally committed, the performance will suffer.
As a manager, it is therefore important to read between the lines and to understand where the individual employee stands. In addition to the task of leading the company through the crisis in a financially secure manner, this is more than ever an essential management task. It is important to promote openness regarding this topic. It is about acting with empathy and finding new working models that will enable your entire team to perform at its best. Because nobody wants to unnecessarily lose many valuable employees to other companies or other forms of work in the coming months and especially not once the economy starts moving in a positive direction again.
2) The employees are no longer the same as those on March 16, 2020
By name, in most cases it is still the same people who work for your company. However, something has happened to most people in the last three months. Something happened with everyone in their own individual way. Some people were and are affected by fears, be it with regard to the economic outlook, their personal job security or in private life, where perhaps relationship problems have been aggravated by "Stay@home". Others ask themselves what matters to them in life and what the current job means to them. The list could go on endlessly.
One can assume that in the future you will encounter situations as a manager where individual employees will react quite differently than they used to before COVID-19. Do not wonder - it is actually normal - wouldn't it be rather "abnormal" if we just went back to the old normal?
What can a leader do? The recognition and perception that something has happened to each individual employee is the first step. Further one can seek dialogue, act empathically and face the facts. This means that in some cases we have already arrived at the "next normal". Not everyone will be willing to continue the journey in the same way in your company or team in the long term as he/she would have done without COVID-19. It is important to think about how you want to face this as a company and also how to use the opportunities that the currently experienced change offers.
3) Hybrid work methods and meetings create the feeling of "being excluded"
We are already experiencing them in these days: The hybrid meetings. Some of the people are already together in a meeting room in the office and the others join the meeting via video call. Inevitably, those sitting together in a meeting room become the "inner circle" and there are "side conversations" as well as eye contacts, from which those participating from home office are excluded and do miss. A delicate factor, especially in uncertain times. In times of lock-down, everyone connected digitally. Everybody played with "the same cards" and overall a higher team spirit and effectiveness was created than in hybrid meetings.
Creative ideas are needed on how to manage the balancing act between individuality, joint efficient pursuit of a mission and a sense of belonging - especially in a crisis and time of great uncertainty - but also beyond.
The return to the regular office routine is not a logistics exercise or simply done by communicating the safety and hygiene measures.
Even if there are no generally valid remedies for the 3 stumbling blocks outlined, it starts with an awareness of what, apart from the tangible processes, is going on in the minds and hearts of many employees. With this awareness and active involvement, employees and leaders will develop procedures that will allow business and collaboration to succeed in the "Next Normal". I am convinced that a proactive approach to these issues is crucial for short- and long-term employee engagement and successful corporate management.
Have you discussed these 3 hypotheses in your leadership team? What is your opinion about them? Which procedures do you intend to follow in order to overcome these stumbling blocks?
One final note. I am known as a positive thinker. Accordingly, the two negatively formulated hypotheses may come as a surprise. Yet in order to shape the future positively, it is also important to face the facts or to anticipate possible negative effects. Only this way is it possible to help shape the future and not to be totally overwhelmed and driven by it re-actively.
About the author
Sibylle Kammer builds bridges between today and tomorrow, technology and business, customer experience and innovation, marketing and sales, femininity and management.
Her motto: Leading by example, being open and curious.
Innovation and a future-oriented approach have been faithful companions of Sibylle Kammer throughout her entire career. She is passionate about moving client-centric new ideas forwards. Sibylle speaks about the realities of vision, strategy and implementation. Her lectures are based on her broad and longstanding experience as a leader, a member of executive and non-executive boards in leading professional service provision firms in the financial services sector, and the consulting and innovation industries.