How to get employees back to office: Challenges for the CEO and CHRO

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Post the COVID pandemic, the biggest challenge globally for the CEO, CHRO and other CXOs is how to get employees back to office. Most CEOs and CHROs consider it necessary to get employees back to office, for the in-person social interactions which, many feel is the bedrock of team work, collaboration, innovation, etc. But getting them back safely, creating a safer than before workplace and ensuring employee motivation and morale remains high, is going to be a likely challenge.

A “hybrid” model will be the new normal in future, India’s largest software exporter Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) will ask employees to come to work once the pandemic is over as social interactions are a social necessity

~ N Chandrasekaran, Tata Sons

Most companies are designing a hybrid model which will involve some employees permanently working from home and some working in office three days a week and two days from home. Of course it’s important to note that not all jobs, even office based, can be performed from home effectively. Therefore, clearly define what is the hybrid? Will it apply to all employees/roles? There are no clear answers at this stage and it remains a challenge from equity and fairness point of view.

“At Google, We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new so we don’t see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility and more hybrid models.”

~ Sundar Pichai, Google

For the past one year plus most office based employees have gotten used to working from home and if you look into it deeply, you will learn what has changed. Let me share what I have learnt and observed from an employees perspective:

What people have started valuing the most:

  1. Office commute time, be it 30 mins or 2 hrs, it’s been eliminated and people have found more time available in the day.
  2. Flexibility to plan and juggle work and life demands, has gone up significantly as the factor/variable of going to office isn’t there.
  3. Constant supervision by superiors in a contained office environment has disappeared and that has given many people, who were heavily supervised a sense of ease, independence and freedom.
  4. Reduced expenses of commute, travel, formal clothing and accessories, etc has facilitated a minimalistic high quality living and increased savings.
  5. Freedom to move from large cities and cramped apartments to smaller cities/towns into bigger homes with family, parents, pets and loved ones has enhanced the quality of lives of many people significantly.
  6. The devastation and deaths due to COVID in the world has touched and rattled everyone in some way or the other. This has made people re-evaluate their priorities and many are choosing to give a higher priority to their mental and physical health vs wealth creation alone. People have started to evaluate and recognise what’s more important to them and are choosing for a more healthy and better quality of life over a career driven by purely aggressive ambition.
  7. People have built significant skills for using remote working digital platforms and technologies and have learnt to be more efficient and productive whilst working working from home.

A May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: Among millennials and Gen Z, that figure was 49%, according to the poll by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News.

Employees Are Quitting Instead of Giving Up Working From Home

Now you see the challenge for the CEO and CHRO. So how should they go about doing what’s right for the organisation’s business and people in a balanced manner. Its only wise to recognise and address this challenge very carefully and thoughtfully. In my opinion the “Do’s” and “Don’t” are as follows:

Don’t:

  1. Don’t force any authoritarian decisions on your people and expect them to accept and comply. If you do it, you are bound to loose a lot of talent, in the short term but even more in the medium and long term. Talent will find opportunities and move to organisation that are more sensitive to their needs.
  2. Don’t be insensitive and dismiss people’s fears. Sensitive and caring leadership is the need of the hour.

KPMG’s UK chair, Bill Michael, had to resign after telling staff to “stop moaning” during a virtual meeting about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, where he also called unconscious bias “crap”.

Do’s:

  1. Request your CHRO and the HR team to independently gather insights about how your employees are feeling and what are their hopes and fears. Articulate and summarise them and present them unfiltered to the CEO and CXOs.
  2. Evolve a plan using clear lenses for objectively deciding, as far as work flexibility is concerned and what your hybrid model will look like. Lenses such as; a) List jobs that cannot be performed from home. For example jobs in manufacturing, sales, R&D labs, customer service, retail outlets, office reception, etc. are jobs that cannot be performed from home in most industries. b) Senior leaders at N-1 and N-2 are roles and jobs that are less effective when performed from home permanently. A few days in a week or month is okay. 3) Jobs that are usually outsourced and have little need for collaboration and socialisation in a workplace can be performed permanently from home, with some hot-desks for them in office. d) Since we are coming out of the pandemic, I suggest we use the lens of COVID-19 vaccination and safe behaviour protocol. Open up offices and invite people back when you have crossed some sort of threshold of 75% or 80% of your employees should be vaccinated with both dosages. That will help you create a safer workplace and ensure employees safety while they commute.
  3. Educate and train people leaders to rebuild the thinning personal touch and connection with their people. They have to learn to engage with people effectively in the new normal of hybrid working models.
  4. Transform the hiring and on-boarding process of the organisation to best suit your woking model. While hiring make sure the contracts are crystal clear to all stakeholders. Onboarding and engaging people who are going to working from home is a new challenge that needs to be addressed. Re-hire or re-contract the working model terms with the existing employees if necessary.
  5. Remember, many employees are eagerly waiting to come back to office. People are missing the workplace, it’s social network and experience. They are missing the travel, off-site meetings and all the fun elements that go with work in a great workplace. Welcome them back nicely and continue to build a superior workplace in all respects.

In conclusion, I suggest, what ever model you evolve and adopt, it should be positioned as a pilot, on a trial basis. Keep modifying and refining it based on learning’s and insights. The best model will be the one that enables an organisation to get work done effectively, retain its talent that will deliver superior business results.

Please do share your thoughts and views on this blog post. Me and my team are in the midsts of doing this in our company.

An organisation should not aim at filling its offices with people. Instead it should aim at creating a workforce that is highly productive and committed to delivering superior results (from office or home). The CEO and CHRO are predominantly responsible for this.

~Yash Mahadik

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