Companies have had to deal with unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. With lockdowns enforcing work from home and the widespread impact on health & safety, organizations responded quickly with medical and financial assistance to employees and their families impacted by Covid19. In parallel, there was a strong focus on mental health with many companies implementing leave policies and other measures aimed at promoting work-life balance and general wellbeing.
The pandemic served to dispel some myths around reduced productivity and/or quality of work when done from home. Teams reported similar or even better results than pre-pandemic years, and many people adapted positively to working from home, even preferring it to coming back to work when things got better. Some companies announced permanent or long-term work-from-home policies for certain roles and closed or consolidated their brick-and-mortar offices, while other companies took a wait-and-watch approach. In recent weeks, many companies announced that they were calling their workforce back to the office. For some, this was a welcome announcement, but to others, it signified the end of a comfortable, more flexible lifestyle.
There seems to be general agreement on the need for a hybrid model combining work from home and work from the office. Companies are setting up task forces, surveying their employees, and engaging consultants to look at all the data and define a new working model.
However, the answers to questions such as “What’s the right balance?” and “Who decides who gets to work from home?” are yet to be tested.
Amplifying the challenge is the huge churn in the workforce evidenced by the rise of employee attrition and the consequent war for talent. With attrition touching 20-25% in the Indian IT industry for example, the demand for skilled professionals is at an all-time high, and job seekers expect significant salary hikes from current/potential employers. Companies are increasingly offering retention and joining bonuses among other incentives, and targeted head hunting isn’t uncommon.
But it’s important to recognize that it’s not just about the money. Our workforce has traveled a grueling physical and mental journey in the last 19 months. At the peak of the pandemic, an ordinary activity like going to the local grocery store was potentially life threatening. People suffered massive personal and professional loss – of family members, friends, livelihoods. Following this level of unpredictability, the need to regain a sense of control is strong and having a choice reinforces the sense of control. Employees want to know that they can count on their organization’s support during difficult times, and they want to choose how they work so they can take care of personal responsibilities and priorities in parallel. Bringing people back to the office under rigid and non-inclusive conditions will negatively impact employee engagement and increase the risk of attrition.
A hybrid model that empowers employees to make choices that are right for them within guardrails that uphold the company’s culture and values promises to be the most effective. Designing the model with inputs from employees and regular dialogue and communication will improve acceptance and adoption. The fundamental principles of change management remain relevant. Companies that involve employees in the change process foster inclusion and belonging, two important conditions for employee retention.