March 2020, and the whole country (where applicable) was asked to work from home. There were no ifs or buts about it—you were either a keyworker who worked on our nation’s front line and tasked with continuing your usual routine, or you had to adapt to working remotely, because of the deadly virus we knew very little about that was swarming around us.
Bosses who had never even considered a remote workforce before then had to suck it up, plainly speaking.
Maybe it was unexpected, but the vast majority of employers who feared they would lose control of their teams or see a lack of productivity once their employees were rooted in their homes were pleasantly surprised. In most cases, productivity increased significantly. Employees seemed happier with no commute to undertake, fewer office politics to contend with, and greater autonomy over their working day.
Fast forward more than two years and the novelty around remote teams has worn off with some bosses. Whether it’s to micro-manage their people or whether they don’t see the need to be flexible anymore, there are a number of employers who have demanded their staff return to the office to work.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll see the red flag in that last sentence before I even point it out. Demanded. They’ve demanded their staff toe the line and come back.
Insisting employees return to the office is counterintuitive
There are two elements to unpick here. The first is that employees are likely to have a much stronger case for flexible working than they ever did; if they really dug their feet in and it resulted in taking their employer to a tribunal, they’d likely win. If remote working was a perfectly effective and productive solution during the height of the pandemic, it’s difficult for any judge or jury to rule in favour of the employer. On what basis could they argue ‘it doesn’t work now? Are they going to suddenly ignore the technology that’s supported busy working routines and allowed staff to work anywhere at any time?
The second element is that insisting on something is not going to endear employer to employee. Workers that don’t want to kick up a fuss may reluctantly return to the office, but they won’t be happy—and it probably won’t be long before they’re looking for another role that does offer them the flexibility they’ve come to appreciate. It’s currently a candidate market out there; perhaps for the first time ever, there are more vacancies available than people unemployed.
I’ve seen examples of employees bringing about a stalemate situation, where they’ve refused to return to the shared workspace. Unable to provide a plausible business case for their return, the employer has just been exasperated at what appears, to them at least, to be insubordination.
In generations past, management styles were more dictator-like; however, this approach simply doesn’t work in 2022. No one is expecting employers to lay down and be walked all over, but neither will employees take as easily as they did to being told what to do. The key words here are ‘compromise’ and ‘understanding’. Why shouldn’t leaders learn to adapt as much as their teams have had to do over the last couple of years? What’s wrong with meeting your workforce halfway?
We Can’t go backwards. Pandora’s box has been opened
The pandemic has been the catalyst for long-overdue changes in working patterns, flexible working arrangements, and employer/employee relationships…you don’t need a prize to understand why many of the roles recruiters are finding difficult to fill are typically those with poor pay and/or working conditions, unsociable hours, and a lack of respect from management. Employees know their worth more now than they ever have.
We can’t go backwards. Pandora’s box has been opened.
The onus looks to be on employers, leaders and managers to communicate with their staff and find some middle ground. It can’t be crucial for every team member to be in the office every day, so why not involve your employees in defining the ideal workplace and redesigning when, where and how they will do their work. If you genuinely feel their presence is crucial, explain this to them, but be prepared to cut them some slack in other areas.
Understanding is important. Each of your employees will be in a different situation, with differing opinions on whether they want to come back to the office. They will have their own reasons; their own, individual commitments to add to the mix; and their own motivators that help them achieve greater productivity. Viewing your whole team as one entity in this respect is the wrong way to tackle the situation. You need to fact-find first, to speak to each of your team members and gather their thoughts on working from the shared workplace.
Whilst you may feel you are more in control of what is happening and experience higher levels of certainty by being able to see your employees in the office each day, the reality is that for the past two years individuals have had increased levels of autonomy, the freedom to choose how to integrate their visit to the gym or time with the family with carrying out their work. But if employees feel they are now being is forced to do return to the office, a threat response will be triggered in their brain resulting in them feeling frustrated and anxious, especially as many people are still recovering from the emotional impact of the pandemic and have growing anxieties around the spiralling rise in the cost of living. The negative emotions experienced by employees will overshadow the positive emotions you may feel as a result of your team returning to the office.
Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, outlines a four-step design process for the return to the office:
- Modelling and testing
- Acting and creating
Dr Rachel Cubas-Wilkinson, Head of US Consultancy at The Myers-Briggs Company, adds: ‘Organisations need to be finding out more about their employees and their work. How much focus time, synchronous coordination time and asynchronous collaboration do they need to do their best work? And what are their personal circumstances behind that? For example, someone who’s single and lives nearby to the office might prefer to be in the office a bit more frequently, but still not every day. In contrast, someone who’s been with their organisation a long time and knows who to reach out to probably doesn’t need to be there that much in order to do their best work.
‘But someone who’s new and lacks institutional knowledge and internal connections to other people might benefit from some ramp-up time in the office (assuming other employees are physically there). So might those who don’t have a good workspace at home, like young professionals sharing a house or a flat, or people with families who are at home throughout the day.’
Cubas-Wilkinson’s points sound like common sense to me, rather than a revolutionary take on management approaches.
Talk to your team, don’t demand they toe the line. Understand their reasonings for wanting a flexible working routine. Determine a model around working from the office/from home, that benefits both employee and employer. And trust them to do their job when they’re not in your eyeline
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