How to Handle Back-to-Work When Employees Want to Stay Home

Posted in Best Practice


HR are sometimes stuck walking a delicate tightrope between business pressures and people priorities. Here’s how to handle your organization's back to work plan if that’s you. 


A week or so ago, we talked about a framework you can use to decide who to bring back to the office, when. (That’s here).

One of the elements of that framework involved considering who wants to come back. Which makes good sense, right?

Don’t force Mike back to the office with his health anxiety and childcare issues; don’t abandon Katie to work remotely, stuck with her loneliness and isolation anxiety.

That’s all well and good if you’ve got a fairly good balance between Katies and Mikes. And if your business is happy with the part-remote, part-office model.

But Gallup found that only 25% of US workers feel they can return to work safely. Nearly half say they’re concerned about catching coronavirus in the office. And nearly three quarters say coronavirus is having a negative impact on their workplace.

You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

Maybe business survival seems to rest on employees returning to the office, and you’re under extreme pressure to navigate the reboarding process quickly.

But many employees don’t want to come back. Perhaps they don’t feel safe, and they feel you’re prioritizing profit over people. Perhaps they feel resentful, and their resentment is damaging engagement and productivity.

Read more: The Only Way Forward is By Putting People First 

What do you do then, when you can see potential long-term HR problems on the horizon but you’re also facing immediate, urgent pressure to accelerate reboarding?

Here are some tactics, to tread that line and meet everyone’s needs as much as possible.


Understand your people's perspective


You can’t move forwards without understanding the on-the-ground situation. Maybe your perspective’s tainted by your own experiences of lockdown, for instance, but most of your workforce feel differently.

Check out our recent article on survivors versus thrivers, if you haven’t had a chance yet. That’s what you need to know – how many of your people fall into each bucket?

  • Who wants to come back?
  • Who doesn’t?
  • Why?

You need immediate answers to those questions, to inform your next steps. Get the data-points from your workforce, first. And fast!


Understand senior leadership's perspective


Gallup’s recent data for the US shows a pretty major divide in opinion about returning to the office. Throughout May, 33% of businesses had all, or nearly all, their people back on-site. But 31% stuck to having all, or nearly all, working remotely.

If your business falls into the ‘we want everyone back’ camp, it’s crucial to understand what’s driving that decision.

For instance, are business leaders concerned about productivity? What data backs that up? Are they worried about slowed innovation cycles? Why?

Especially right now, when everyone’s so busy that you mightn’t be getting much time with senior leadership. Downwards directives without explanation or context are your enemy.


Build your business case 


HR add most value as a strategic advisor, not as a mediator between the C-Suite and workforce. Your robust understanding of employee concerns and business decision-making put you in a unique position to navigate the tightrope between people and business priorities.

From your unique vantage point, you’ve got the best chance of making informed, holistic long-term decisions that ultimately, drive better business outcomes.

So, now’s the time to interrogate your thinking and form a data-backed argument, and build the business case for the outcome you believe in.

Should the business sacrifice, say, short-term customer satisfaction to prioritize long-term employee satisfaction? Or is returning to the office genuinely survival-critical?

Don’t shy away from standing against your CEO’s opinion if needs be; they’re more likely focusing on isolated business metrics. You’re not being difficult; your voice could stop the business making potentially momentous mistakes.

As our Return to Work Playbook says - reboarding is the biggest transition your business has ever faced, and it’ll either be the biggest threat, or the biggest opportunity.


Advocate for personalization


If you’re bringing people back to work – either because you believe that’s best, or because your hand’s being forced – your reboarding strategy can’t be one-size-fits-all.

Personalized reboarding is harder, higher-touch and more time-consuming but it’s also the best way to work within everyone’s limitations and ensure employee engagement doesn’t take a long-term hit.

Increasing HR efficiency is key right now, especially if your own team’s been hit with redundancies. Making do won’t do. HR is the most important business function right now.

If your team’s struggling with workload, add interim headcount or (better, more affordable, and a longer-term solution) invest in technology to automate processes. (Like Enboarder for Reboarding…)


Get managers on-side 


More than half of managers say they’ll allow their teams to work remotely more often after all this. And of course, managers are employees too. They might actively want to work from home themselves.

Plus, they’re closer to employees than anybody. If their direct reports don’t want to return, managers most likely know and empathise. They may seriously resent being forced to bring their team back if they don’t believe that’s in the team’s best interests.

That can cause a rift, where managers ‘side’ with their direct reports ‘against’ the business.

Read more: 23 Practical Things HR can do to Improve the Back to Work Experience 

That’s a major problem, because it widens the gap between leadership and the workforce – and that’s where dissatisfaction, misalignment and cultural disintegration brews.

Stop that rift opening up. Help managers understand the business’ decision-making, so they can make a fair case to their team. Help managers understand their role – and coach them to avoid language like “I’m on your side about all this” or “I know it feels unfair but…” or “these are the orders from the top”.


Act fast to mitigate employee’s concerns 


Like onboarding, reboarding isn’t set-and-forget. Especially given how quickly the coronavirus situation might change.

Develop mechanisms to listen to your people, as close to continuously as you can. Then act on their feedback. Don’t let pulse survey responses languish there, waiting for analysis.

That way, you can mitigate reasons that employees might be reluctant to coming back to the office.

Like, perhaps Tracy doesn’t feel safe – so you can ramp-up safety measures. Or Milly can’t get childcare – so you can introduce an in-office creche. Or maybe Adam’s reluctant because he’s getting way more done at home – so you can introduce standing meetings, or ‘no interruption’ workspaces.

And remember - everyone’s likely to make mistakes at the moment. That’s unavoidable. But long-term negative consequences are avoidable, if you spot mistakes and course-correct fast.

Download our Return to Work Playbook now to discover how to bring your people back to the office in the best way for everyone.


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