Get people back to work without really disengaging them

The UK has been told to get back to work if safe to do so. In coming weeks, the government will launch a campaign to get everyone back into their workplaces to help boost the economy and fill our high streets once more.

The Guardian reports, "Douglas McWilliams, a former chief economic adviser to the Confederation of British Industry, has warned the economy will not return to its pre-pandemic size until 2025 if home working continues in its current form, which would add up to at least £480bn in lost activity."

Projects like HS2 and Heathrow expansion could be stalled, transport declines, office blocks become vacant and once lively city zones could become ghost towns. Getting everyone back in to work seems like the only rational thing to do.

But in a recent Korn Ferry survey, "15 major employers that collectively employ about 2.6 million people, more than half said they already had decided to postpone their back-to-work plans, apparently in part because workers were refusing to come in."

What the people want...

Many people simply don't want to go back to work because either they prefer to work from home or because they fear the world as they remember it.

Think about it, you work 8-10 hours a day in a busy open plan office, hit the busy motorways, trains or congested ring roads, wasting hours of your life and being stressed. The cost in terms of time, money and mental health doesn't seem worth it when you know you can do your job in your own neighbourhood. And don't forget the very real fears of catching the virus and not being safe - after all, office blocks aren't set up for social distancing and air flow.

Force people to come back in and you are only going to create resentment and disengagement. Give people the option and you'll find it hard to entice them back.

What are employers to do?

Express your intention early

If it's your intention to get everyone back into the office, then let people know early so they have time to make adjustments or get their heads around the idea. If it's your intention to stay remote working until a certain date, or forever, let people know. If you are still deciding, tell people. In a world that seems so out of control, giving stability and assurance early really will do you a great favour.

Consult and listen

Ask your people how they are feeling and what their biggest concerns about returning to the physical site are. You might be surprised. For some it might be the worries of using public transportation at peak times, so can you stagger start times? Perhaps it's the cost of parking, so can you subsidise parking? If it's the busy office, can you demonstrate office plans via a video so they can be reassured, redesign working patterns or office design. Perhaps they now need to do the school run as they don't want their children to go on buses or trains, so flexible working patterns might be considered. The fact is, unless you listen to your peoples real concerns, you won't be able to plan a solution for them.

Volunteering and rotation

Some people have had enough of working from a tiny corner of their room, especially if they are in shared accommodation or a studio flat. Extroverts might be craving variety and a change of scenery. Ask for volunteers to come in if they want and gradually integrate teams on a rotation basis. I have already seen some people celebrate the benefits of being back in the office. " I love the impromptu catch-ups with colleagues not seen for 4 months and having different kinds of conversations", "I am relieved to have structure and proper working environment instead of working of the dining room table", "My mid morning coffee from my favourite coffee shop - bliss".

When others see others enjoying the workplace again, they may feel more inclined to rejoin, or have that horrible "fear of missing out".

Prepare a welcome gift.

Why not send your employees a little gift pack before they arrive. Hand sanitiser, a mask, a door opener and keyboard wipes, a named water bottle and a welcome booklet. These little gestures can make a really positive impact on someones mindset and help them feel cared for.

Meet people where they are.

Not everyone has the same needs, wants and options. So you need to be flexible in your approach. If some people need a phased return to work, be an enabler. If someone wants to come in full time, do what you can to accommodate their wishes. If someone wants 3 days at home, can you work with that? No-one has the perfect solution yet, so set your intention, be flexible, and work towards it step by step.

And if remote working is the future...

Get set up for it properly.

Working from home is very different to remote working.

Work from home is what you do when you work in an office but stay home on the odd day because you need to focus, or you don't have any meetings that day. You set your laptop up in a coffee shop or corner of the home and get to work.

Remote working is different. It's a permanent solution that requires a different mindset and set of skills.  You need to be highly motivated, disciplined and a self-starter. Communication naturally drops off when remote, so you need to overly communicate and consciously stay connected to the team and build relationships or lose influence and know how.

Bosses will need to invest in technology above teams and zoom to enable hyper-collaboration and connection. You might need to provide a budget for the home office set up, including the right chairs, big screen monitors, webcams, appropriate lighting and broadband provision. You will probably need to train people in using apps such as Jamboards, Trello, slack or Sharepoints. You might need to do weekly live Q&A sessions, podcasts or videos to keep your people connected and updated on company news.

The point is, moving to remote working is an organisational and technological redesign and needs to be put on the strategic plans.