When COVID forced the world to quickly adapt to a remote work environment, many of us thought that we were facing our biggest workforce challenge. But as leaders and employees grapple with how to move forward post-pandemic, we’re quickly realizing that our greatest obstacle may well be re-entry into the workplace.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, we knew work would never look the same, and discussions surrounding “back to normal” quickly changed to “the new normal.” But as much as we’ve hyped this concept, no one has been able to define it: Employers are struggling to outline what expectations they should have for employees, who in turn are wondering how they will adjust, again, and rework their schedules to accommodate their employer’s expectations.
On top of all this, many people are reexamining what a successful career looks like and are trading cutthroat, always-on jobs for roles that allow for more flexibility and meaning – a trend that’s becoming known as the “Great Resignation.”
[ Want more hybrid work strategies? Read Hybrid work: 4 roles to assign in every meeting and Hybrid work: 7 signs that meeting should be an email. ]
When we started writing our book, Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines pre-pandemic, we had no idea just how timely it would be – because if there is one thing that the pandemic taught us, it’s that social connection is vital to every part of our lives, including work. Now the big question is: Do we all need to be in the office to cultivate and nurture those connections?
In some ways, organization leaders are stuck between a rock and a hard place: If they let employees continue to work from home, social connections will suffer. But if they force employees back to the office, many will leave for more flexible opportunities. Thinking in terms of either/or will only make re-entry more difficult.
Here are four fallacies to keep in mind when it comes to workplace re-entry:
1. False: Everyone needs to work the same way
Let’s face it: Little has changed when it comes to the workweek and workday. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of workplace flexibility came on the scene. More progressive companies that provided flexible policies (and the culture to support it) were relatively rare.
Now that we’ve all experienced workplace flexibility, there’s no going back. What people value in their careers has changed. Where, when, and how people work probably doesn’t need to be determined by leadership – instead, organizations should empower their teams to create ways of working that are best suited to the preferences and needs of their people. And because every person and every team is different, you will likely see a lot of different approaches across the organization.
2. False: You must be in-person to innovate
Many employers that insist on everyone coming back to the office are stuck on the idea that innovation can happen only when people are all physically together. And there will certainly always be a place for in-person connection – it plays a vital role in building connections and supporting collaboration when done with intention. But physical togetherness is not a panacea for innovation.
If your teams aren’t innovating like they should be, the problem is probably not location. Instead, look at the culture. Every company and team may look different, but all workplace cultures require four things to thrive: trust, empathy, well-being, and psychological safety. Organization and team leaders who prioritize these things will be better positioned to retain talent by fostering a workplace in which people can bring their best selves to work every day. This in turn leads to more innovation.
3. False: Everyone is tired of technology
We know that Zoom fatigue is real because we’ve experienced it. But technology shouldn’t be the reason to bring everyone back to the office – after all, everyone will continue to use it whether they’re in the office or working from home.
Instead, strive to be more intentional and thoughtful about how you use tech on the organizational, team, and individual levels. Leaders should ensure that effective collaboration platforms are in place so employees don’t need to rely on conference calls to get work done remotely. Teams can agree on boundaries that define when and how colleagues communicate. And on the individual level, everyone should take responsibility for creating space in their day for technology-free time.
4. False: Employees will leave, and you can't do anything about it
Some of your team members probably started planning their exit as soon as they read the first “return to work” email. You know it’s happening, but what can you do about it?
Better understanding the needs of your team members can help you come up with solutions that work for both your employees and the business. Building open lines of communication and encouraging honest discussions will build trust, strengthen relationships, and may help you retain more people.
While re-entry has caused anxiety, it has also presented an opportunity for organization leaders, teams, and employees to apply the lessons of the pandemic and create a healthier, happier workplace culture.
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]
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