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An increasing number of companies are calling people back to the office. Some are requesting just a couple of days a week, others are demanding a full-time return, and then there are those that fall somewhere in between. But there’s one thing these enterprises all share in common, and that’s the reception they’ve gotten from employees: opposition. Such mandates have been met with a great deal of hostility.
Tesla was primed to have 40 percent of its employees either quit or look for another job when its return-to-work mandate went into effect, noted one expert. (Tesla continues to struggle with this mandate due to room and resource shortages.) Alphabet also experienced some backlash from Google Maps workers when it tried to call employees back to the office, receiving a petition citing several concerns around the request.
While employers don’t necessarily have any obligation to meet the needs of their employees, it’s important to recognize that the employer-employee relationship is a free-market interaction. Neglect the work experience and risk losing good talent — more so today than ever before. People have gotten a taste for the flexibility offered through remote work, so coming back into the office just doesn’t hold the same appeal. One global survey found that 64 percent of workers would consider seeking employment elsewhere if asked to return to the office full-time.
Culture: The saving grace
If you’re getting resistance about calling people back into the office, turn your attention to the company’s culture. Has it been built with intent? At EOS Worldwide, we did what we could to get people meeting in person at least once every quarter. We created a culture where people genuinely like one another. Our employees enjoy hanging out, talking on the phone, chatting via text, and so on. Building a culture of connection and encouraging meaningful relationships was especially vital to us as a virtual company.
After all, people who like each other will find ways to connect even outside the office. That’s how humans operate. It’s human nature to form communities. When setting work spaces, the same holds true. Even with the hybrid work model, you need to ask yourself how to maintain flexibility and gain the benefits of getting access to the talent available all over the world.
Whether working remotely or making the shift back to the office, it’s important to create a place where people want to come to work. You can use these ideas to help you set out on the right foot:
1. Reset expectations for both the company and employees
Remote plumbing isn’t a thing — nor is remote landscaping, food service, dentistry or bus driving. Many occupations require workers to be physically on-site, most of which are almost entirely left out of the discussions about bringing people back to the office. There’s a lot of single-chute psychology going on these days that is ultimately creating a myopic focus on how the global economy works. In many cases, some people simply have no choice but to come back to the workplace.
If this sounds like your operations, the first order of business is to prioritize expectations. However, remember that expectations are a two-way street. Set clear expectations for your team, of course, but also make sure you understand the expectations of employees. One survey found nearly half of workers have left their jobs because the workplace failed to meet their expectations. Whether in-person or virtual, you and your leadership team must make sure to know what’s on everyone’s minds — and vice versa.
2. Get everyone on the same wavelength — literally
One of the unique (and weird) aspects of in-person work that remote work can’t compete with is a phenomenon called physiological synchrony, where two people sync up behaviorally, physiologically or even neurologically — and collaborate better because of it. People naturally pick up on nonverbal cues and work better together as a result, even going as far as to sync up brain waves.
But to benefit from this in-person magic, you have to get employees in through the door. It already takes a lot of time, energy and focus to establish the trust necessary to create high-performing teams. Not only that, but employers must also foster psychological safety — crafting an environment where employees feel empowered to bring up ideas, questions or concerns without facing retaliation.
Teams with high levels of psychological safety outperform those that lack this particular dynamic. Studies have shown that companies with high psychological safety experience 76 percent more engagement, 74 percent less stress, and are 57 percent more likely to collaborate.
3. Celebrate successes together
For some employers, the urge to come back to the office comes from lacking a culture of discipline and accountability. They worry they can’t effectively monitor remote employees, but this attitude actually hurts their efforts to bring back brick-and-mortar offices. After all, telling your employees to come back so you can keep an eye on them is infantilizing, as Apple employees upset about a return-to-office noted in an open letter. They told the company to “stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”
The crux of this issue is a lack of trust between employee and employer and a misguided focus on the “time and effort” economy. But spending time on work doesn’t necessarily mean it’s successful. These companies should switch to a “results” economy — celebrating and recognizing employee successes. Not only will this build camaraderie and improve morale, it’ll also push employees away from working just to “look busy” and more toward improving measurable results. The extra time from ditching busy work will give employees more time to develop and deepen new skills — benefits that also help the company.
Whatever direction you take in a return to the office, even if it’s a hybrid work model, it’s more important than ever to be thoughtful and intentional with your efforts. You need to do what’s best for your business and what’s best for your employees. Strike the right balance, and you won’t experience resistance when calling employees back to the office.