When (and If) Employees Return to the Post-Pandemic Office – What Leaders Need to Know

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As the COVID-19 pandemic moves towards the second quarter of 2021, and society continues to open, leadership teams are considering when (and if) employees will return to the office. Although an estimated 1 in 4 Americans will continue to work from home (“WFH”) in 2021, many more employees will be called back to their office as vaccine distribution ramps up. Here’s what leaders need to know—and five questions for them to consider—to lay the groundwork for a successful transition.

Factors that Drive Satisfaction Level with Work From Home

According to research by Martec, a strategic research and consulting firm that specializes in customer and employee engagement, there has been a wide range of reactions to the work from home arrangement. Broadly stated, Martec uncovered four types of WFH employees which they characterized as Thriving, Hopeful, Discouraged and Trapped. Further, the data shows that while entry-level and executives trended in the Thriving and Hopeful categories, those with manager and director-level titles were feeling more discouraged and trapped. Of particular note, 50% of those surveyed with director-level titles reported working more hours. 

Image courtesy of Martec

Mid-Level Leaders More Likely to Enjoy In-Person Elements of Work Life

Why were mid-level leaders the least satisfied with their WFH situation? It turns out there was a correlation along the introvert-extrovert scale. Mid-level leaders were more likely to describe themselves as “extroverts.” This group saw the largest decrease in positive mental health factors (a decrease of  40%.) Chuck Bean, Partner/CMO at Martec offers this insight into why this might be true. Mid-level leaders “tend to be more extroverted and miss the camaraderie and engagement that the office environment provides.” Bean also noted that, “this level tends to have a heavy load at work and with the blurred lines between work and home, their home life is likely suffering as they don’t ‘shut off’ work and tend to work more from home.”

WFH Trend Will Impact Attracting Top Talent

As organizations move to bring their office workforce back to in-person work, all levels of leadership will need to wrestle with this question: who is best suited to continue WFH work? As Martec’s data suggests, there could be a bias within the leadership ranks based on their personal experiences with WFH, which doesn’t necessarily line up with their team members’ experience. 

Bean says that companies would do well to understand the seismic shift that the office-based workforce has experienced over the last year.  “Our hypothesis is that the competitive dynamics of the labor force will dictate that the work team leaders need to adjust if they want to keep the top talent.  If leading firms hold fast and provide more flexibility/work-from-home opportunities, then the people that value that will drift in that direction.” For larger enterprises Bean suggests leaders keep an eye on what the leading, top-talent magnets are doing.

Questions for Leaders to Consider When Bringing Employees Back into the Office

Wise leaders always factor the people equation into their decision-making. Here are a few questions leaders should ponder when creating the plan for re-entry back into an in-person format.

  1. How much of my own preference for in-person work is driving the need to bring employees back in person?
  2. Have I asked each team member how this arrangement is working for them?
  3. Who on my team has struggled with WFH? Who has thrived?
  4. What evidence do I have that WFH is working (or not working)?
  5. If in-person work is absolutely essential to the success of my team, what creative solutions can I enact to meet the needs of people who loved WFH?

Predictions of how many employees will remain working from home post-pandemic vary widely, but one thing is certain: nearly a year of work-from-home has altered many aspects of the leader/employee relationship. Research shows that depending on the role one plays in their organization, there are divergent levels of satisfaction with the WFH scenario. Mid- to senior-level leaders would be wise to acknowledge that diversity in opinion so they can attract the best talent in the future. They’d also do well to check their bias for in-person work so that they don’t overstate the benefits based on personal experience during the pandemic shut-down. 

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