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Keeping Up Employee Relations in 2023

Return-to-office policies and performance management were top of mind for HR professionals this year


A mid adult businesswoman enters her office during the COVID-19 pandemic. A colleague is walking behind her, practicing the proper social distancing protocol. The businesswomen are wearing protective face masks.

Of all the employee relations articles published on SHRM Online in 2023, those that readers turned to most often were accounts of workers’ return to the office. Some employers demanded their physical presence, while others offered more perks and flexible scheduling to lure people back. But employees empowered by a tight labor market and high starting salaries kept the upper hand through much of the year, insisting on at least hybrid work schedules.

Perhaps related to that, other popular employee relations articles were on the topic of performance management. Having difficult performance conversations may be a timeless issue, but it was one that many HR professionals sought help with this year.

Here are this year’s most-read employee relations articles:

CEOs Call for the End of Remote Work

The pandemic ushered in a new era of work. Many workplaces went fully remote, with some employers giving up their office space altogether. In the post-pandemic era, a number of workplaces are now hybrid and have no plans to return to full-time, in-office work. According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of workers with jobs that can be done remotely are working from home full time, and 41 percent of those with positions that can be remote are working a hybrid schedule.

However, many employers are attempting to bring workers back into the office, with some—including Zoom and Meta—requiring in-person work at least a few days per week. Additionally, new research from KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook showed that 63 percent of CEOs predict a full return to in-office work by the end of 2026, while only 7 percent believe that full-time remote work will continue in the long term.

The need for collaboration and maintaining workplace culture are the top two reasons employers cited for requiring workers to return, according to a SHRM survey of 1,500 HR professionals conducted in June. Moreover, 49 percent of managers say their hybrid workers are struggling with loneliness and other mental health issues that can be better addressed in the office. Yet a recent Microsoft survey shows that 52 percent of employees want to work on a hybrid schedule or remotely for the rest of their careers.

The good news for companies implementing return-to-office policies is that while employees may say they don’t want to go back, most report that the return has been a positive experience. Seventy-one percent of workers who returned to the office say they are more satisfied with their jobs, according to the SHRM research, and about three-quarters say they are more effective and productive.

“As business leaders, we’re not saying come back to the workplace simply to be punitive,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM. “We’re returning to the office because we are in an uber-competitive environment on the verge of an economic downturn, and we need everything going our way—which means innovation, collaboration, efficiency.”

Employers may want to end remote work now that the pandemic is over, but they can’t let down their guard too soon. A spike in COVID-19 cases prompted some employers to adopt a back-to-basics approach to disease prevention, even as many employers imposed return to office mandates. 

Complicating matters were predictions that a “tripledemic” could emerge this winter—a viral collision of upticks in COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

So what can employers do to combat the COVID-19 threat, as well as looming flu and RSV risks? They might consider dusting off their pandemic playbooks.

New and Old Employee Relations Challenges

One of the more unusual side effects of remote work during the pandemic was the rise in the number of employees who lead a double life: logging on to two full-time jobs, juggling meetings and tasks, and collecting two paychecks. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of March 2023, more than 8 million Americans were working multiple jobs. And a Resume Builder survey showed that 69 percent of remote workers have a second job, though the vast majority of these additional roles are part-time. 

Given the prevalence of remote work, the rising cost of living and wages not keeping pace with inflation, some employees are finding it necessary to hold two full-time jobs—or jump ship if they feel they’ve topped out on salary or can't expect a promotion anytime soon.

That's especially true at companies where pay has skyrocketed for certain hard-to-find employees while remaining flat or falling for others. But salary budgets don’t always allow for raises to keep employees onboard. Employers had to get creative to keep great workers engaged despite budget and career growth limits.

Part of keeping employees interested in their work is making sure they understand their manager’s expectations—and that managers understand their employees’ perspectives. Better communication can start with the performance review process. Columnist Jathan Janove offered an alternative to the common formalized performance review process for better, increased communication and understanding between employees and managers.

That doesn’t mean that constructive feedback is easy to give. And many managers avoid it entirely, columnist Paul Falcone wrote. But problematic workplace issues rarely fix themselves. Instead, they build up over time, causing resentment and frustration. Then, when a manager wants to fire an employee, there’s little if any record of substandard job performance or inappropriate workplace conduct. HR denies the request to terminate and suddenly becomes the “bad guy” for not letting the manager terminate the worker causing the issues. Falcone offered a range of tips on how to do this effectively.

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