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How to approach employee resistance to returning to the office

The drive to get people back into the office isn’t universally popular, and some employees, especially those with health issues or extra responsibilities, are understandably resistant. Here’s how we’d tackle it.

By Amy Butterworth, Principal Consultant, Timewise

flexible working

There’s a growing sense out there that it’s time to start bringing people back into the office. With restrictions having eased on 19 July, and the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) behind us, leadership teams all over the UK appear to be planning a full-scale return, albeit, in many cases, on a hybrid basis.

However, the move towards more office-based work isn’t universally popular; one IPA/Opinium survey found that only 31% of adults favoured a full-time return to the office, with fully flexible approaches and a hybrid 3:2 model both preferred. Some are being hugely vocal on the subject; employees at Apple wrote a letter to their CEO in June responding to (and rejecting) the proposal that they would be required to return to the office for three days each week.

As a result, leaders who believe the return to the office has clear benefits are left treading a delicate balance, between supporting their employees’ work preferences and doing what they think is right for the organisation. It’s not a straightforward one to fix, but it does need fixing; forcing people to come back in against their will won’t work for them or the organisation. Instead, here are some suggestions for how you should approach it.

Understand staff preferences

The first thing to do, if you haven’t already, is to find out what your employees are thinking and feeling. What’s the appetite for coming back into the office, and what are the objections? What could you do to help them feel more comfortable? For example, would a simple adjustment to the timings of their working day that cut out rush hour travel make a difference to their preferences?

Explore any objections

Once you’ve understood how people are feeling in general, you need to dig deeper into any concerns. And there are likely to be a wide range of reasons why people are unwilling to return.

For some, working from home will have changed their lives for the better, such as replacing commuting with exercise time or being able to share childcare. Others may genuinely feel that they’re more productive outside of the office; some may have even relocated on the assumption that they will be able to work some of their week from home. For others, particularly those with health issues or dependents, there may be real fears about exposure to Covid-19 or their ability to juggle their responsibilities.

Recognising the benefits that remote working has brought your employees, and registering their concerns about returning, will help you design a solution that allows them to hold onto the good stuff, and feel supported to manage their specific needs.

Think about what the office is for

Armed with these insights, you need to ask yourself this question: what are you asking your employees to come back in for?

Given the concerns that people may have, you’ll need to make sure it’s worth it; simply expecting them to come in just to sit at their desks and work like they used to won’t be enough. And nor is it sufficient to trot out the line that people should ‘come in for collaboration’; that’s just too vague.

So instead, take this as an opportunity to re-evaluate not just the office, but the working day. Start from scratch, challenging assumptions and long-held ways of doing things. If you could design the best way to deliver your company’s objectives, what would it look like? If you were to rethink the working day, with wellbeing and productivity as your focus instead of hours clocked, what changes would you make?

And involve your team in this process, to make sure that the changes you agree will stick. For example, as part of our hybrid workshop for line managers, we advise carrying out activity analysis with their teams. This involves looking at the different types of activity needed to deliver their goals, and the best time and place to do them.

This process of exploration will give you a platform to work out what the purpose of your office should be, and to explain to employees why, and when, you would like them to come in.

Interrogate your own and others’ biases

As part of the evaluation process, you’ll need to make sure you’re not being swayed by your own preferences and biases. Are you keen to bring people back in because that’s how you prefer to manage? Does it just feel easier to go back to how it’s always been done? That’s not a good enough reason to stick to the status quo.

Similarly, if your line managers are nervous about being in charge of a team they can’t see, that isn’t a reason to make everyone come in. Upskilling your managers to support and develop remote colleagues is a far better solution.

Think individually as well as strategically

Finally, it’s worth remembering that there is no one-size-fits-all for flexible and hybrid working. So whatever your new office set-up and working day looks like, there will still be some people for whom it isn’t appropriate, or who may need additional support.

For example, even if you decide that certain team meetings need to be attended in person, you should still make provision for anyone who can’t attend, such as allocating a buddy in the room who can advocate for their airtime. By making inclusivity a priority, and thinking beyond the technology, it should always be possible to find a solution.

The bottom line is, there is no going back, at least not for people-focused, forward-looking organisations. The shifts caused by the pandemic are too wide, and too deep, to be overturned; employee demand for flexible options is higher than ever, and you risk damaging your retention strategy and your employer brand if you don’t respond. And of course, you would also miss the opportunity to build back better. But these are big strategic issues to explore, and you may need some help; if you’d like to know more about how we could support your process, please do get in touch.

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