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Leadership Development

Let’s Talk About Employees Resisting Returning to the Office


Recognizing Return to Office Challenges

Got the RTO blues? (I just made that up, but I’m pretty sure the Return-to-Office Blues is a thing.)

Whether you are navigating bringing a reluctant team back into the office, or an employee resisting the move back, RTO is a hot topic—and a contentious one.

I’ve been tracking return-to-office articles and mentions and it has been on our collective mind for some time. However, it seemed to become a more urgent discussion around June 2022, when some tech titans began to demand that workers return or consider themselves resigned. (Here’s looking at you, Elon Musk). Ironically, as reported in Fortune Magazine, this edict proved disastrous as returning tech workers found not enough desks to go around and spotty internet.

Interestingly, these more urgent return to office conversations were also happening at the exact time the great resignation was continuing to make waves, leading to speculation that if organizations didn’t continue to allow remote work, there was a very real chance their workforce would threaten to resign.

While I think we can all agree that remote, or at least hybrid work, is still the trend, (Gartner estimated that 51% of all employees, worldwide, would be hybrid by the end of 2021,) we need to think carefully about how we’ll navigate the “new normal” or “future of work” if we want to give workers the best experiences possible and to provide them with the ability to grow as leaders.

Here are a couple of ideas to consider as you navigate the Return to Office Blues:

  • Are your work-at-home or in-office policies clear? Promises made mid-pandemic might need to be re-evaluated if the company culture is leaning toward in-office teams—but be prepared for pushback from remote employees. Newly formed teams or new hires may question why remote work is not encouraged or available, so communication and acknowledgment that there may be some differences in what options are available is key. Notice that clarity and communication are the factors at stake here, and not necessarily "fairness," which is a slippery slope. Rather, we need to ensure that employees are clear on their roles,  and have what they need to thrive.

  • Are offices set up to effectively accommodate new, or more, in-person teams? Don’t make the mistake mentioned above and not give employees what they need to easily work in the office. Employees who are now used to remote work may find returning to the office exhausting and distracting at first, (or even harbor feelings of resentment.) Teams who have been working in the office all along, or more recently, will likely experience disruption and challenges accommodating their new teammates.

  • Are there opportunities for learning and advancement, regardless of in-office, or work-from-home status? Especially in organizations where there is a tradition of advancement through mentorship, ensure that there is not a bias toward advancement only for in-office individuals, and take an honest look at how employees have advanced on remote teams.

  • Consider asking people what they prefer, and how they can work more effectively. The simple act of asking and being prepared to deal with their answers – even if you can’t accommodate all of their wishes, shows employees they are being listened to, and their ideas and concerns are being taken into account.

  • Make a point to cultivate a positive workplace culture, whether that is in-person, hybrid, or remote. Just as global organizations need to be adept at navigating across time zones and countries, we probably all need to up our culture skills to make sure everyone feels included—regardless of in-office status.

How Will You Approach Return to Office Challenges?

A lot of what I read lately has the tinge of “convincing” people to return to the office. Some articles go so far as creating a matrix to identify supporters and dissenters, with the advice that leaders/executives make the decisions, and the employees and teams need to come into alignment. (And poor HR, of course, gets to do the dirty work.)

I’d like to think that if anything the pandemic taught us, we can achieve amazing results with an open mindset, an ability and willingness to pivot, and by supporting employees with clarity and, if possible, choices. (Even if this means they don’t get to do what they want to do, all the time.)

Good luck on your Return to the Office challenges - please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

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Lauren Parkhill

Lauren Parkhill leads the marketing team in creating creative content that helps organizations develop their leaders and teams.