HR Headaches: What to Do When Employees Don’t Want to Return to the Office

July 21, 2021
HR Headaches: What to Do When Employees Don’t Want to Return to the Office

COVID-19 turned many small businesses into remote-based workplaces in 2020. Now that more people are getting vaccinated for the virus and states are signaling businesses and schools to reopen, remote workers should be eager to return to the office. But in a Society for Human Resources survey, more than half (52%) of 1,000 employees polled said that they would prefer to work from home full time, if given the choice. Employees’ growing preference for WFH can be troubling for some employers. Businesses who want workers back on the job as COVID-19 subsides must weigh the need to have them back in the office against their desire to work from home. They must also decide what to do if many of them don’t want to return to work. As companies make plans to bring employees back into the office, they must understand that the workforce that left the office in March 2020 will not be the same workforce returning in the coming months, said Terri Patterson, principal at Control Risks and a former psychologist. “Employees have been through a lot over the last year and what employers are aware of may only be the tip of the iceberg,” she told TriNet.

Workers fear getting COVID, losing flexibility 

When the pandemic hit, employers moved quickly to help slow the virus’s spread by sending workers home who could do their jobs off-site. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of employees who worked from home all or part of the time rose from 20% before the pandemic to 71% today. “Data tells us that what matters most to workers is autonomy to choose when and how they get their work done,” said Becky Frankiewicz, president, ManpowerGroup North America. “With a rise in remote learning and growing demands on families, offering this flexibility has never been more important.”

A lot of people have fears or constraints about returning to the office and are pushing back hard on employers.”

Ron Weiner, CEO of iMovR, acknowledges workers’ reluctance to give up working from home. “The return-to-office momentum is much weaker than most employers were anticipating,” he told TriNet. “If we've learned anything from the pandemic it's : workers can be even more productive from home than from the office, at least for 2/3 of their work, and a lot of people have fears or constraints about returning to the office and are pushing back hard on employers.”

Employees are anxious and dealing with emotional challenges

In a global study of 4,553 full-time, remote workers, the Limeade Institute found that 100% of them were anxious about about returning to the workplace. They attributed the causes of their anxiety about returning to work to:

  • COVID-19 exposure (77%)
  • Inflexible work schedules (71%)
  • Commuting to work (68%)
  • Wearing a mask (54%)
  • Need for childcare (22%)
  • Other sources of anxiety (7%)

Employers that overlook the pandemic’s effect on workers’ mental health can expect more resistance to the return to work. Lockdowns and stay-at-home measures have affected nearly 3 billion people worldwide, according to the global business consulting firm Deloitte. Gena Cox, Ph.D., an industrial/organizational psychologist and executive coach, told TriNet that employees, largely women and Black women in particular, don't want to return to the office. Many don’t want to return because they are still dealing with many emotional challenges and unpredictable circumstances, like childcare and housing costs. She added that employees don't believe that workplaces are prepared to offer them the psychological safety they need when they return and continue juggling these challenges. Cox also said that employees know that the longer they stay home, the more likely employers will give in to their wishes to win the war on talent. “Employees know that, for jobs that can be performed remotely, they have more options than before will hold out for as long as they can,” she added.

Employers mistrust WFH, lack remote management training 

Businesses may have different reasons for wanting remote employees to return to work, but WFH’s relative newness as a work option is a likely factor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2019 National Compensation Survey, remote work in the pre-COVID era was an option for only a select group of employees — mostly managers, white-collar professionals, and other highly paid staff — while most jobs (63%) had to be performed onsite. As a result, managers generally expect jobs to be performed in the workplace. Managers’ mistrust of unsupervised remote workers and little to no experience supervising them are driving some employers to issue return-to-work orders. A team of Australian researchers found that COVID-19 thrust many managers into the role of WFH overseers with no preparation or training. Of the 215 managers and supervisors in the study, 40% said they lacked the confidence to manage remote workers. And nearly as many managers (38%) believed that employees who work remotely don’t perform as well as those who work onsite. A third of business leaders in a Unisys Digital Workplace Insights Report cited 1 or more of the following problems as WFH shortfalls that lower productivity:

  • Difficulty communicating with team members
  • Undependable Internet connectivity and/or inadequate bandwidth
  • Difficulty using new or unfamiliar WFH technologies
  • Trouble accessing required content, data and/or applications
  • Obstacles to receiving valuable IT support
  • Difficulty focusing on work because of personal commitments

Although BLS data shows that 31% of all jobs could be performed entirely offsite, executives in a PwC (PriceWaterhouseCooper) study don’t think company culture can survive under a 100% remote work system. In fact, 29% — the group with the highest number of votes — prefer having employees onsite at least 3 days a week to preserve company culture. Only 6% of executives could support employees being onsite just a few times a month.

Getting employees back in the workplace

Surprisingly, not all employees agree that WFH lowers productivity; 79% of business leaders in the Unisys report admitted that remote workers are just as productive as they were in the office. And the PwC study revealed that not all employees are opposed to returning to work — they’re just not as eager to return as employers had anticipated and don’t want to give up WFH entirely. The Unisys and PwC studies show that employers and workers can find agreement on return-to-work issues and policies. Employers can start the process for returning to the worksite with the following steps.

Address COVID-19 fears 

Follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) guidance for businesses and employers. The CDC provides updates on methods for controlling the virus’s spread in the workplace, including sanitation practices, social distancing, mask wearing, vaccination, and other precautions. Employers can require workers to follow safety procedures as policy, including being fully vaccinated before returning to work. Recognizing workers’ mental health needs also is part of helping them cope with the pandemic while returning to the workplace. “The current workforce is more vulnerable to mental health issues, with 50% to 55% of survey respondents reporting a decline in mental wellness during the pandemic,” said Patterson. She recommends promoting the availability of employee assistance programs (EAPs) and other mental health resources to workers.

“The current workforce is more vulnerable to mental health issues, with 50% to 55% of survey respondents reporting a decline in mental wellness during the pandemic.”

Accept WFH as the new norm

Allow employees who performed their jobs at home because of the pandemic to continue having some flexibility in their work schedules. For businesses experiencing WFH for the first time since the pandemic, a hybrid work model could help lessen workers’ resistance. A hybrid model combines onsite work schedules with WFH options. By allowing remote work once or a few times a week, managers can have quality face time with their teams while satisfying employees’ need for more flexible schedules. Americans are already accepting WFH as the norm. Millions easily transitioned from working full-time onsite to working remotely since the pandemic began, Pew data shows. The transition has been so massive that requests from remote workers for iMovR’s standing desks rose from 30% pre-COVID to 95% today. Employees at Voices, a firm specializing in voiceover talent, told founder and CEO David Ciccarelli that they’re very pleased about the company’s ongoing “work from anywhere” policy. He told TriNet that the first step is to have a clear policy, which covers current workers as well as  new hires.

Train leaders to manage a remote workforce and measure performance 

Train managers in how to boost and maintain productivity without having their teams onsite every day. The focus should be on results, rather than work processes and procedures. Setting up a metrics process includes:

  • Drafting a WFH metrics policy on what and how performance will be measured.
  • Tracking workers’ goals, priorities, and deadlines
  • Using performance management procedures to evaluate workers’ progress
  • Having workers track and record their hours; the Fair Labor Standards Act requires records of nonexempt employees’ work hours

Tapping into HR’s expertise

SHRM offers a 10-point return-to-work plan that includes:

  • Making workplace safety the top priority. Along with the latest CDC guidelines, safety strategies include employee health screenings, a COVID-19 exposure response plan, and providing personal protection equipment (PPE).
  • Planning how employees will make an orderly and gradual return to work to avoid chaos
  • Continuing offering WFH for safety reasons, if necessary, staggering WFH days, and updating technology to support remote workers
  • Updating or creating new policies, if necessary, on paid leave, attendance, flexible scheduling or other topics

A win-win for the workplace

The pandemic upended the way we do work. And although most jobs still must be performed onsite, COVID-19 showed millions of employees that flexibility between work and home is possible. Business leaders learned that changing the way their companies operate not only may be necessary, but it can also create a win-win situation for companies and employees. A hybrid workplace gives employees the flexibility they want in their lives, while reducing some of the isolation they sometimes feel when working from home. By adopting COVID safety measures, accepting WFH as a bona fide work option, and training team leaders in remote work management, employers will make employers’ return to work less taxing.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

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