How Can We Get People Back? Return to Workplace Tips

After months of planning, you and your HR team are finally implementing your organization’s return-to-the-workplace strategy. You feel you have been deliberate and thoughtful in your approach, and you’ve been clear and timely in your communications so that your people know what to expect.

But there’s just one problem: your employees don’t want to go back.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In a July 2021 EY Canada survey, more than half (54%) of Canadian employees said they’d leave their employer if their existing flexibility in schedule and work location wasn’t extended post-pandemic. And installing that new foosball table may not be enough: even when offered onsite amenities, two-thirds said they’d still prefer control over where and when they work.

People Need People

We know that isolation has been a significant strain on people during the pandemic. In fact, a Sun Life survey found it was the top contributing factor in people’s mental health challenges last year. Technology has helped keep us connected, but “Zoom fatigue” is becoming increasingly common.

There’s no question that remote work has its perks (sweatpants, anyone?). But the truth is, it’s good for us–and our teams–to interact face to face. LifeWorks’ latest mental health index found that more than two-thirds (68%) of Canadian employees working at their job sites feel a greater sense of belonging and acceptance at work than those who work from home or in a hybrid workplace. What’s more, the isolation scores among those working exclusively from home are significantly worse (negative 9.6) than those working in a hybrid model (negative 7.6) or in a physical job site (negative 7.3).

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, one of the main elements that makes us successful at work is “social capital”: the benefits people get because of who they know. The informal interactions we have in a work context–say, dropping by someone’s desk to ask about their weekend, or running into a colleague in the lunchroom–help build trust and familiarity among co-workers. Without that social capital, organizations tend to see more absenteeism, higher turnover and lower levels of organizational performance.

So How Can We Get People Back?

It all starts with flexibility. In an October 2021 Cisco Canada survey, 77% of Canadian employees said flexibility in work location and work hours now directly influences whether they’ll stay at a job. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that workers who feel a sense of autonomy and control over their work schedules are more likely to be engaged and stick around longer.

If employees express a reluctance to return to the physical workplace, listen to them and respond to their concerns. Are they struggling with childcare or elder care? With COVID-19 cases continuing to surface, are they worried about their health and physical safety? Are they facing any mental health challenges? Only by understanding their issues can you help address them–through an employee assistance program, for example.

Treat it as a marketing opportunity. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to be happy about returning to workplace; you actually need to show the value of being there. Tangible incentives may help during the transition (a pizza lunch can go a surprisingly long way!), but the true value is in the creativity and bonding that comes with in-person interactions. It’s a chance to remind people of what they’ve been missing during the pandemic, and why it matters.

As I write this blog, I’m aware that the new Omicron variant is causing some organizations to pause on the return-to-the-workplace front. But the reality is, COVID is likely here to stay, and there may always be new variants to deal with. By listening respectfully to employees and working together to address their issues and concerns, you can help ensure a safe and successful return–whatever your “new normal” may be.

Alyssa Hodder
Director, Education and Outreach – Canada

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