For many, the return-to-work movement feels like a disconnect. It suggests that we've all slacked off the past 18 months and now it's time to get back to work. In reality, the workforce has added 48 minutes to the workday and increased the number of meetings by 24 percent during the pandemic, according to researchers at the Harvard Business School. In addition, 70 percent of employees claim to now work on weekends.
As employers push to get everyone back together in a physical office, employees are becoming increasingly anxious. Most wonder, what does a "new normal" actually look like? For companies attempting to put the toothpaste back in the tube, they're in for a rude awakening as employees are making their feelings known by jumping ship to companies that embrace workplace flexibility.
Unfortunately, the gap between what employers want and what their employees seek has widened significantly since COVID-19 first emerged. A Microsoft survey of 30,000 global employees found that 41 percent are planning to quit or change jobs in the next six months. The data found rampant levels of burnout, with 54 percent of workers claiming they feel "overworked" and 39 percent saying they are "exhausted." Despite these findings, the same survey found that 61 percent of leaders claim their people are "thriving."
Not surprisingly, employee retention has fallen significantly as the "resignation tsunami" flows through employers large and small. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers are actively job hunting, according to SHRM research, which also found that four out of five business leaders report it is taking two to three times longer to fill a position than in past years. So how can leaders ensure attrition doesn't become the most serious consequence to their business after nearly two years of leading through the pandemic?
Exercise Empathetic Curiosity
In The Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They're Doing, author Karyn Twaronite, global diversity and inclusiveness officer at EY, the multinational professional services and accounting network headquartered in London, suggested that "when people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential."
In her research, Twaronite found that 39 percent of respondents feel the greatest sense of belonging when their colleagues check in with them, both personally and professionally. On the flipside, she found out which tactics didn't yield the same results. For example, face time with senior leadership that wasn't personal, being invited to big or external events or presentations by senior leaders, and being copied on e-mails from company leaders didn't make anyone feel any more connected.
To practice active listening—a tenet of empathetic leadership—senior managers need to dig deeper. A survey of 2,000 people in the U.K. found that the average person says, "I'm fine" an average of 14 times per week, but only meant it 19 percent of the time. And right now, people aren't fine.
Recent research examined well-being and burnout during the pandemic across 46 different countries. The survey showed 85 percent of respondents felt their well-being had declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 2 percent rated their well-being as excellent. In addition, 89 percent shared that their work/life balance had declined; many citing that juggling parenting duties and the amount of unpaid labor was burning them out.
People managers can solve for this with more frequent check-ins about non-work-related topics. It doesn't need to be formal, but it should be consistent. Start by asking these three questions every week:
- How was your week?
- Were there any issues at work or home that caused you stress?
- What can I do as a manager to make next week easier, and what can we do as a team to make next week easier for each other?
Don't wait to integrate this type of meeting into the workweek. Trust is built over time, and it can take months to years for employees to feel completely safe speaking with their managers about mental health.
Communicate and Listen
According to a Workforce Institute survey, 32 percent of respondents claimed they yearned for more communication—both sooner and more transparently—from their employers, which is a primary regret for more than one third of C-level leaders.
Bill Gorman, chief operations officer at RSM US, a Chicago-based audit, tax and consulting firm, suggests how to close that communication gap. "Have real conversations with people about what they are concerned about today and how to address that, as well as about how they want to work in the future," he said. "Giving our people room to rebalance work and life paradigms at their pace has been very helpful to them."
When planning for a return to physical workspaces, Gorman learned through partner feedback surveys, employee surveys, and direct conversation between managers and their teams that employees wanted to maintain flexibility gained during the pandemic.
The executive team responded accordingly. "At this time, employees are not required to go into the office; however, offices are available for those who need or want to work there," Gorman said. "In the long term, we expect that most people will work in a hybrid model, so people will still have the option to be remote on days where their work doesn't require them in an office or at a client site. People can also request fully remote work through our flexible work option system."
Gorman explained that it pays to actively listen and communicate with empathy during a crisis. Intentional actions like these say, "I'm hearing you. I will work hard to understand your needs and respond thoughtfully," he said.
One Size Doesn't Fit All
After months of developing new patterns of working, the workforce has been forever altered. It's naïve to expect that it can return to before-COVID-19 times. And yet, some organizations are trying to do just that. The reality is that people now have a new frame of reference. For employees who liked working remotely despite the distractions, they've come to realize what they were missing. They know what it's like not to commute for hours each day, to have the ability to run an errand in midday, see a doctor if needed or pick up the kids from school. They also know that they can have all of these benefits and still be equally or more productive at work.
For those employees who can't wait to go back to a physical office, a work-from-home forever policy may be the reason they leave. Some have come to realize that working remotely makes them feel disconnected and lonely, or they have a hard time focusing. Either way, all-or- nothing policies aren't working. It all comes back to flexibility in this new future of work.
Joanna Daly, vice president of compensation, benefits and HR business development at IBM in New York, said companies shouldn't feel pressure to follow what any other company has declared, and that flexibility has been a policy at IBM for decades. "How we were working before the pandemic will be how we continue to work in the future," Daly said.
It's still important for the company to gather data and feedback to make sure their policies are still connecting, she said. "We always try to keep a pulse on how people are feeling."
To gain that ongoing knowledge, IBM leverages polls and standard employee surveys. They are big proponents of direct manager dialogue but have also recently engaged a multi-channel approach to learning and communication as a way to better gauge the impact of the pandemic. IBM initiated an "Ask Me Anything" effort with senior executives so employees can get answers to their questions from all levels of leadership. Social media platforms are being used to create more informal ways of talking to staff as well.
Daly said there are some silver linings to the pandemic from what she has witnessed. "Because the pandemic has been so challenging, we've become much more open to discussions about our mental health," she said. "We want to keep that going so we're building up new training initiatives that will better equip staff to recognize and help others as it relates to mental health. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that we 'understep' out of fear from overstepping. I'd like to see that change."
The bottom line is that company leaders should take a step back to figure out what workplace success looks like in the midst of an ever-changing global crisis, including the new delta variant of COVID-19. It is not business as usual, despite some behaving like it is. For those who think employees can keep up this pace while facing grief, chronic stress, uncertainty and worry on a daily basis, they are not being truthful with themselves. And there will be no "return to work" for employees who have nothing left to give—at least not at their current employer.
Jennifer Moss is an award-winning journalist, international speaker and author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021) and Unlocking Happiness at Work (Kogan Page, 2016). She is co-founder of Plasticity Labs, a Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based research and consulting company that focuses on organizational culture.