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Employees don’t want to come back to the office. Maybe they’re right to stay away

Employees don’t want to come back to the office. Maybe they’re right to stay away

Dr Elaine Chin contributed to the Globe and Mail. Read her opinion article to learn more on this hot topic.

If you have an office job, you’ve likely spent much of the past two years working remotely. And if you’ve been working remotely, you’ve likely enjoyed it.

Workplaces experienced a relatively smooth transition to fully remote work, especially if they used a hybrid work style prior to the pandemic. In fact, things worked so well that there was a widespread expectation that remote work would become a major, permanent feature of the professional world.

But now you’re likely feeling pressure from your bosses to come back to the office, either gradually or all at once. Maybe you’ve already been ordered back.

You’re also likely feeling worried, if not angry, primarily for two reasons. First, because while much of the world is moving on from the pandemic, many people are still at risk as new COVID-19 variants continue to evolve. This means working in person is still a risk. Second, because remote work has made our work and home lives significantly simpler and more balanced.

It’s not just rank-and-file workers who feel this way. My clients, who are mainly executives who belong to Air Canada’s million-mile club, have never been healthier. They are sleeping in one time zone, eating well, drinking less alcohol – well, most of them – and exercising regularly. And now they regularly eat together with their kids at the dining-room table. Many of them say to me, “I got my life back!”

So what gives?

Why come back to the office at all when things seemed to be going so well? Why return to the days of soul-crushing commutes, wallet-emptying gas prices, expensive coffees and lunches, office-related illnesses, and all the other downsides of office life that, ultimately, have nothing to do with the actual work we’re being paid for?

Actual work itself saw many improvements during the work-from-home era. For instance, the use of video conferencing instead of in-person meetings has led a mini-revolution in what’s being called “meeting equality.” That is, it creates what the remote work equipment company Poly calls an “experience where everyone has the tools and technology they need to be included and empowered to participate, regardless of their location.” Working from home has increased happiness and efficiency, which benefits both workers and their employers.

Demands that we all return to the office are stunting what for many has been an opportunity for growth and improvement. So much has changed over the past two years that receiving the “come back to the office” e-mail makes workers feel infantilized, like when your parents told you to be home by 10 p.m.

In truth, the justification for returning to the office is extremely thin – an argument HR executives would call “soft.” It just seems right. Regardless, many bosses are hyper-focused on bringing their employees back to the office ASAP, even when employees are sending crystal-clear messages that returning to work every day is a non-starter.

What if the employees are right?

In a tight labour market, employees are king. Did the C-suite miss that memo?

My work also includes speaking to teams and helping them transition through the final stages of the pandemic. Recently, I was on a Zoom call with a CEO to finalize the details of my presentation to his new senior leadership team. He told me his organization was an “operational” company and coming back to work was essential to improve sales productivity. I explained my approach: to encourage leaders to practise and model self-care, in whatever form works best for them and their organization. Just like my work in personalized medicine, one treatment does not fit all. Unexpectedly, this was not received well and my talk did not go forward.

The message the CEO wanted me to express instead was that “things will get better” once the team comes back to the office – as though the past two years were merely a minor bump in the road.

If you’re an employer like that CEO, you are likely to experience a much more severe wave of resignations than a conscientious company might.

This same topic came up again at a recent luncheon discussion with experienced HR colleagues. Not one of them could come up with a compelling argument for a full-scale return to the office policy.

That doesn’t mean there are no arguments in favour of a return to the office. We agreed that some functions require teams to brainstorm in person and being together improves trust and collaboration. And it is important not to discount human nature; we are truly social animals. We cannot thrive, learn and create connections via Zoom and in solitude. And many do need a break from their spouses, kids and pets.

But employees have shown they can get their work done regardless of where they are. They don’t need to be policed or treated like children with a curfew. For paranoid bosses, there is tracking software that managers can use to see exactly how employees are using their time, but even this is not necessary in the vast majority of cases.

As a doctor, I found that my experience matched up with data from Canada Health Infoway. Patients reported that almost half of their doctors do virtual care and 90 per cent of them were satisfied with the virtual care they received. This trend of delivering cost-effective health services will likely continue in the near future. And if doctors can make room for some amount of permanent virtual care in a way that makes sense for both themselves and their patients, then why can’t bosses at a traditional, cubicle-based office?

Telus, where I was a chief wellness officer, embraced hybrid work styles well before the pandemic. I too was skeptical at first, but the data supported what I experienced. According to a 2013 survey from the company, Telus workers loved hybrid work, and overall employee engagement was higher than among average peers.

More recent data from the 2021 Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey support this claim. Thirty-two per cent of employees working remotely during the pandemic reported being more productive than when they were in the office, on top of another 58 per cent who were equally productive in both settings.

Teams can do their work and get it done efficiently and effectively. When people do get together in person, it is a wonderful meeting of the minds. There is also a lower greenhouse-gas emission footprint as a result of less travel and lower office occupancy costs.

Bosses want their employees back in the office, but we have truly arrived at a new normal, and to reverse course there needs to be a more compelling reason to come back other than being told it’s simply what the boss wants.

If we come back physically into a workplace, we must come back with a clear purpose, a better time-management schedule and modern workplace designs.

It took a pandemic for us to learn how to do work differently, and workers by and large liked those changes. Bosses need to not only listen to what their employees are saying, but embrace it.

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