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What if you need employees back in the office and they don’t want to return?

Businesses that require employees to return to HQ may encounter resistance.
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What if you need employees back in the office and they don’t want to return?

What if you need employees back in the office and they don’t want to return?

9 December 2020

By Mike Toten

“Mate, you’ve done a great job working from home during COVID-19, but we can’t continue doing everything on Zoom, now we need you back in the office”.
“But that means I will have to iron both sides of my shirts instead of just the front of them”.
As flippant as that excuse sounds, many employees who were advised, or sometimes forced, to work at home during the COVID-19-induced restrictions that commenced about nine months ago have found working at home preferable to commuting to and from the employer’s premises. But now that restrictions are steadily being lifted and a return to “business as usual” has either already occurred or is looking imminent, having employees “on-site” more often is increasingly necessary.

For that reason, some businesses that now require employees to return to headquarters may encounter resistance from them. How can you overcome, or at least mitigate this?
This article covers the HR issues involved in employees returning to on-site work.

Is full-time return really essential?

That’s the first question to ask if you are expecting resistance. Can you objectively justify it to reluctant employees? How will productivity, customer service, etc improve if they are back at HQ? Is there evidence that business is picking up again to an extent that restoring in-house resources is essential?

Some employees may argue that they proved that they could do a better or just-as-good job while working from home. That may often be true, but it may also be true that it occurred at a time of reduced business activity (ie less demand on resources) and at a time when customer expectations were lower – the latter because the customers themselves were also working under COVID-affected conditions and were more tolerant of inconvenience.
In other words, if you have data to support your argument, use it. However, even if employees understand the business need of returning to HQ, they still may not want to. See below...

Why don’t they want to come back?

A one-on-one conversation with each employee about returning to HQ is recommended. Common reasons for not wanting to come back include:
  • Savings in commuting time and cost – note that ensuring public transport is COVID-safe is largely beyond an employer’s control
  • Easier to manage around non-work commitments, such as childcare
  • They believe they are more productive without in-house distractions such as meetings, office gossip, fire drills, etc
  • Other than scheduled Zoom meetings and appointments, they have more freedom to choose when and how they work
  • Other cost savings, such as the lower laundry expenses alluded to above.

Analyse carefully what the employee’s reasons are. Can you mitigate them in some ways? For example, can you still allow some days of working at home, or implement a graduated return to full-time in-house? Can you reschedule hours so they don’t have to commute at peak times? Can you consider subsidising some of the increased costs?

Don’t just make them “required” back: make them WELCOME!

Face-to-face contact with work colleagues also has some benefits – of both the social and intellectual type – so focus on those. Some businesses have successfully overcome employees’ initial reluctance to returning with the following initiatives:
  • “Welcome back” events such as morning teas, themed days and “fun at work” activities
  • Taking employees to lunch – perhaps make this a regular event, eg monthly
  • Regular one-on-one catch-ups to ensure that any problems or concerns upon returning are quickly identified and acted upon
  • “Thank you” rewards for helping the business to survive the setbacks caused by COVID-19.

The aim of these activities is (hopefully) to reinforce to employees that there are good things about being together in a central workplace that they may have missed without realising it.

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