Return to where? HR pros and company leaders still struggle with the return-to-work matter.
The reality is, most companies just don’t know what to do. Or when to do it. Or even how to do it.
More than 70% of companies changed their return-to-work plans when COVID-19 variants surged recently. They either put it off or reverted back to remote and hybrid work, according to research from The Conference Board.
Nearly half of companies haven’t even decided on a date to return to work.
“The need for continued flexibility, transparency, and empathy from management remains a top priority,” says Rebecca Ray, Executive Vice President of Human Capital at The Conference Board. “While many are eager to return to a sense of normalcy, simply mandating a return date and highlighting the safety protocols that will be in place is not enough; leaders need to articulate a compelling reason to return to the workplace at all.”
Regardless of where your company stands on the return-to-work matter, you’ll want to mind employees’ well-being (on-site or not). Here are tips to keep employees engaged, motivated and safe, whether you return to work or stay remote.
If you return to work …
The good news if you want to bring employees back to the workplace sooner rather than later: 60% of employees are comfortable returning to work. Those in leadership are most comfortable – and ready – to get back on-site, Conference Board researchers found.
While many people claim they don’t want to return to work, most aren’t held back by COVID-19 fears. Instead, many just prefer the work-from-home experience.
So for those who are office bound, HR and front-line managers will want to:
Employees who’ve been off-site all or some of the time in the past two years don’t feel as connected to their workplaces as they once did.
They’ve lost touch with their company’s mission and values. Their relationships with colleagues and bosses suffered. They’ve also lost sight of their personal impact on company goals.
But more than 75% of employees want to work at an organization where they feel connected to the purpose and the people, according to Blueboard’s State of Workplace Connection Report.
That’s why it’s important to rebuild connections to:
- Company mission, vision and values: Emphasize those when recruiting and onboarding. Then give front-line managers tools, tips and reminders to continue to emphasize those at a regular cadence to their employees.
- Colleagues. Employees bond over shared experiences. When they’re on-site, you might be able to reinstate events and rituals they cared about prior to COVID-19 – such as group lunches, yoga sessions, cooking classes and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that serve the new workplace realities.
- Work. Front-line managers will want to reset goals, expectations and rewards with each employee. Then they can take the extra step to help employees see the connection between their work and the company achieving its mission.
Keep it safe
Everyone on-site will still have his or her own COVID-19 comfort level. But nearly everyone has health and safety in the workplace on their minds. In a Paylocity study, employees ranked a safe work environment as their third highest priority (behind compensation and engagement with boss). It’s still a big deal.
So you’ll want to continue to emphasize health and safety on-site and remind employees what the organization does every day to maintain their well-being.
Physically, you may want to review and follow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guide on protecting workers.
What’s more, you’ll want to offer assistance and create initiatives to help employees with their mental well-being.
One way: Take the Add-Subtract Approach.
- Add. Work with employees to find well-being benefits and opportunities that fit their needs. If you offer more mental health resources or add meditation sessions that employees don’t need, they won’t do anyone any good. On the flipside, the availability of pet insurance and tuition savings might ease burdens and contribute to overall well-being. You need to talk with employees to find what works.
- Subtract. We almost always talk (and write) about what you can add to improve employee well-being. But Harvard Business School researchers found improvement efforts – of any kind – can be almost as effective if leaders subtract problems. So ask employees, “What are workplace barriers to your well-being?” You might find unnecessary or redundant processes, issues or policies that can be eliminated.
If you stay remote …
HR and company leaders have faced major shakeups in the past two years. Nearly 75% say they feel pressured to make workplaces changes that reflect how employees work now. Most of that is centered around flexibility, according to the Willis Towers Watson Reimagining Work and Rewards Survey.
“Companies in virtually every industry are now under significant pressure to adapt to a new business environment and sweeping workforce changes,” says Adrienne Altman, Managing Director of North America’s Talent and Rewards at Willis Towers Watson.
The biggest changes have been and will be in how to manage a remote and hybrid workforce – the people who won’t return to work.
As much as employees say they like the benefits of working remotely, many still struggle with the isolation. That’s something HR and front-line managers will want to stay ahead of.
Nearly 60% say they feel unappreciated when they aren’t in the office, the Blueboard researchers found. They don’t feel supported or recognized, and often feel overworked and left alone too much.
So, if you go forward with hybrid or remote workers, it’s critical to continue the virtual efforts you’ve had in the past. Host full-on virtual meetings and events even if just one person is off-site. Then employees, regardless of where they work, can see and interact with each other.
Hold regular informal employee recognition and reward events online. Ensure remote employees have the same technology and support employees on-site have.
Perhaps most importantly, give front-line managers the time and resources to meet online with individual employees at least weekly so they remain connected.
Normalize the work
One of the persisting problems with remote and hybrid work is employees put in more hours than if they were on-site. They can’t find the switch between work and life, so they keep the work light on all the time.
Harvard Business School researchers suggest a few solutions to normalize work for remote employees so they can maintain balance.
- Let employees draw the lines. Beyond exact times that remote employees need to collaborate with colleagues and bosses, let them choose when they work. But make it clear there are times when they can’t work! People who have control over their schedules are more engaged and healthy.
- Control messaging. Remind and encourage leaders to avoid messaging employees outside of normal business hours. Give everyone instructions on how to schedule messaging in your email and communication apps so they aren’t sending anything at 10 p.m. (even if that’s when they work). Or pass along this email tagline people – especially those who don’t work standard hours – can add to their messages: My working hours may not be your working hours. Please do not feel the need to respond outside of your working hours.
- Incorporate no-work times. Researchers found that employees at companies with pre-planned days, nights or even weeks off were more satisfied, engaged and loyal.