When Employees Say No to Returning to the Office

Ever since the pandemic upended office work as we knew it, organizations have been grappling with when and how to bring people back into the office – assuming that they were bringing them back, that is.

Excluding the essential workers and others who had to show up to do their jobs, or worked through the worst days of the pandemic, many individuals came to enjoy working from home. As organizations continue to grapple with the remote versus in person question, there are some examples we can look at.

According to a recent NPR report, Apple planned to bring people back to the office three days a week, but postponed the decision after more than 1,000 employees sent the company an open letter that said, “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”

Goldman Sachs was one of the leading proponents of the return to the office, with CEO David Solomon ordering workers back full-time, and calling remote work an “aberration.” Yet on February 1st, when workers were expected to return, only half showed up. By May, the daily figured still hovered between 50-60%.

When Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin suddenly and significantly rolled back the ability of state employees to work remotely, his actions were met with an exodus, with over 300 employees quitting the week the ban went into effect. Moving forward, employees who want to work from home any number of days would need to go through an approval process that differs depending upon how many days at home are requested. The Virginia Governmental Employees Association administered a survey to members about the policy change, finding that the majority disagreed with the move, citing concerns over the rising cost of gas, childcare, COVID-19 related health and safety, and general confusion about the approval process. Many also cited the ability to work effectively from home.

What lessons can we learn when executives want employees back, but they don’t want to go?

Communication is Critical When Making Organizational Changes

In just about every situation, whether it’s dealing with a crisis like a pandemic or major organizational shifts, not having information causes worry, stress, and often rumors that are worse than what is actually happening. Part of the frustration by Virginia state employees was a result of the swiftness of this decision without much clarity. When making a policy change, it’s important to be transparent and give employees time to adjust.

“One Size Fits All” Rarely Works in an Organizational Settings

It can be tempting for organizations – especially very large ones – to have blanket policies. After all, who is to say whether one person’s reason to work from home is more valid than another’s? Yet flexibility is paramount to attracting and retaining top talent. If you have an unhappy workforce – or, as in the case of Virginia, a workforce that is quitting en masse – it’s going to make it much harder to achieve your goals. Consider a system that enables employees, with the guidance of their managers, to chart a solution that makes sense, and trust them to make it work. An employee who is satisfied with their working arrangement – whether it’s because they save money on gas or feel more safe continuing to work from home – is likely to remain motivated.

Listen to Your Employees – Often, and Authentically

Unfortunately for Virginia, the administered survey was done after the fact, and by the Employee Association. Acting unilaterally without soliciting feedback can feel hostile to employees, particularly in the wake of the upheaval of the last few years. While organizations won’t necessarily take actions exactly how employees might like, taking the time to understand their point of view, and then sharing a resulting decision within the framework of that feedback, can go a long way towards acceptance. We don’t always get our way, but communicating the context of a decision, especially to an audience who largely disagrees with it, is a sign of great leadership.

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