As many organizations welcome back staff to cubicles and conference rooms, employees have mixed feelings about the move. Some are eager to dissect the latest bingeable TV shows by the coffeemaker, while others will, apparently, pass up significant financial and career perks to continue working from home.
For instance, one employee at a big San Francisco company was offered half a million in stock bonuses. This large dollar amount was reportedly what one Silicon Valley company offered one employee to return to the office. Spoiler alert: they turned it down. “I’m happy with my life the way it is now, and I’m a hundred times more productive,” the employee anonymously told Vanity Fair. “They can turn the campus into a museum, as far as I’m concerned.”
However, as the head of a team made of different types of people, you should remain cognizant of health concerns. This includes staying aware of the status of COVID-19 spread in your community and ensuring that your employees feel safe returning to the office.
As a leader, if you need your people back in the office (but many are reluctant to return), here are a couple of ways you can inspire employees to trade soft pants for group lunches.
Start with the ‘why’
Employees who embraced remote work may see a return-to-the-office mandate as punishment, or a desire for managerial surveillance. Ease their fears by clearly outlining why you want teams back in a shared space. Whether it’s to promote spontaneous collaboration, increase workflow efficiencies, or encourage organic knowledge-sharing, explain how and why the change will benefit everyone.
Expressing gratitude is also essential. If someone is excelling on the job, or your team has been exceptionally adaptable, make it known on multiple occasions. Everyone has fought a different battle over the past year-and-a-half, and a simple, “thank you” goes a long way.
Next, reinforce your shared mission. For instance, does your firm support small business owners? Promote creativity? My tech company equips people and organizations to be more productive. It’s simple, but offering concrete examples always gets our employees fired up. You may want to create a fun presentation that reorients and inspires people as they come back together. Or, ask your teams to share what they’re excited to tackle before the end of the year. The goal is to get people talking, thinking, collaborating, and solving problems together.
In a CNBC survey of U.S. executives in human resources, finance, and technology conducted in June, 45% expect to finish 2021 with a hybrid model, where staff work both in the office and remotely. Few leaders will be surprised to hear that employees crave flexibility, but what matters most is how you support it. For example, ensure that your staff have the IT resources they need to move seamlessly between different locations. Training should also be a priority, both for new and more experienced staff. Many of us have skills that got a little rusty during the pandemic, or we discovered knowledge gaps we need to fill. Ask your teams what they want and need to learn.
Foster personal connections
Many employees will initially feel awkward and disconnected from their colleagues, no matter how many video meetings they attended together. Some may also be managing anxiety, health concerns, or adjusting to new routines. However, studies repeatedly show that human connections help people tolerate and recover from stress. In a story for Harvard Business Review, management experts Dorie Clark—who is a Fast Company contributor—and Constance Dierickx say leaders should encourage people to reconnect in low-pressure ways.
“Small gestures, such as hosting ‘back to work’ happy hours or group lunches, make a difference,” write the authors, “so do more informal, one-on-one solutions like suggesting that one employee talk to a colleague who has expertise in a certain area that’s relevant to a project.”
Remember that employees can work productively both in and around shared-office spaces. For example, a small team could hold their hour-long brainstorm session in a nearby coffee shop or have a walking meeting. As long as it’s safe to do so, I’ll continue to have off-site lunches with my employees and reconnect with the teams I’ve missed so much.
Most importantly, consider that people are rarely predictable. Even if you’ve surveyed employees and taken the collective pulse of your organization, the results may not reflect all experiences. And as Dierickx and Clark explain, “leaders will observe a range of reactions in their people, from relief and excitement to fear and hesitation.” Reminding your team that all emotions are normal will increase their sense of psychological safety.
Throughout the pandemic, which is not over yet, many people necessarily adapted their daily habits and developed coping mechanisms. They may need time to let go of these feelings and behaviors, so don’t panic if the road to reopening is a little bumpy. With smart planning, clear communication, and an open mind, you can help your employees feel good about returning to the office, even without spending thousands on stock options.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, Jotform allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.