Employees return to work in the office, but management is less than happy. Businesses recently reaching out to consultancy Seyfarth at Work for training and management solutions report being distressed at many of the behaviors they now see. The workplace has not returned to business as usual, nor will it.
Employees who switched from in-office to remote work have become accustomed to their newfound freedom: They worked in the privacy of their own homes, created their most favored work schedules and got their work done as it was assigned. But they made an important discovery in work hibernation: They became in charge of their time, work style, social needs and any breaks they deemed necessary to remain productive and happy. Yes, happiness and joy are now high on their list of important factors for returning to the office for a job. And why shouldn't they demand the culture that suits them if their work is accurate and completed on time?
Philippe Weiss, attorney and president of Seyfarth at Work, has received numerous calls from clients shocked by their returning employees' new attitudes. Management apparently thought remote workers would return to work as usual; this is not the case as they wished. Privacy is no longer as highly valued nor as fully respected.
Employees are bringing their work-at-home freedom to the office by engaging in social chatter, banter, sarcastic remarks, joking, invasive personal questions and stories that, pre-COVID-19, would have been whispered on the down-low only to their special work friends. The private weekend experiences are now brought to light for all to hear, including coworkers who don't wish to hear them. So, Weiss and his national team of attorney consultant-trainers had to respond quickly with an action plan.
"Now, business owners are wondering if hosting their traditional employee summer outing is as prudent a choice as in prior years," says Weiss. If the raucous employee behavior of the office increases once outside, the liability may not be worth the risk. What has been necessary is a reorientation where all employees are treated as something akin to newbies and reacclimated to professionalism norms.
Weiss offers management easy-to-follow tips for office behavior; among the most important is to be (reasonably) patient. Employees have had a year-and-a-half of remote work and independence, so it's unrealistic to expect employees to snap back into your rigid behavioral expectations, not now, and perhaps never exactly as before COVID-19. (However, any repeated, severe or complained-about conduct should be addressed immediately.)
Leaders should hold meetings to talk about respecting the company's clients/customers, as well as their co-workers and urge employees to curtail offering their gut-level opinions in open discussions. Social interactions should be polite when voiced openly; conversations at work should be positive, respectful and offer emotional safety for all. Employees will need some time to redevelop a rapport with their bosses and coworkers within the office. Additionally, managers will do better in managing as they develop their empathy, social skills and ability to clearly explain and focus on the latest performance expectations.
Weiss suggests interactive trainings to provide employees the opportunity to discuss and agree on best practices and positive language choices. He says returning to work will affect managers as much as employees, and some may leave their positions, willingly or unwillingly, if they cannot adjust to a more diplomatic approach to leadership and to supervising hybrid (remote and on-site) teams. The newfound freedom among employees will require managers to become real leaders, not the punitive micro-managers of yesterday. He has also found most employers amenable to mix each workweek between remote work and work in the office, depending on the company's needs for the various jobs.
Recent studies show happiness is now the most important job feature for employees because:
- they stay in their positions four times longer, which reduces turnover losses;
- they provide 12% higher productivity;
- they commit twice as much time to the jobs; and
- they have 65% more energy than unhappy employees.
In addition to recreating a company culture suited to the new expectations of employees, companies must continue to provide a safe and healthy atmosphere at work to protect against outbreaks of illness. This new role for human resource departments may induce companies to reinstate the once-popular position of "human relations representative." This role, filled by a psychology graduate, offered a friendly ear to employees so that they could express their feelings about a job or a boss without being blacklisted by HR. Despite the tragic events caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns, what may emerge is a newer, more positive view of corporations and organizations in America.