Post-vaccinations, many of us thought we would be returning to a pre-pandemic “normal” — or at least getting to see our teams in the office again. Instead, employees are faced with their company’s uncertain (and increasingly inconsistent) office re-opening plans, as well as the emotional exposure that comes from deciding how they’re feeling about the return to the office.
COVID has wreaked uncertainty on our team
As leaders of our companies, it’s our special responsibility to create certainty when the outside environment can make many feel at the mercy of a virus.
Our employees are in a vulnerable position on several fronts. Many folks miss in-person collaboration but do not want to be in the office just yet. For example, for working parents who may have unvaccinated children at home. For them going into the office is a calculated risk. Similarly immunocompromised employees may feel pressure to choose between their careers and protecting their health. On the other hand, newly graduated employees are craving social connection and their first in-office experience.
As a leader, one of the best ways you can support vulnerable employees is to create certainty. That means setting clear expectations for how and what work will look like at your company at the 3, 6, and 12-month time horizon. Much of that is guesswork. However, the cost of pushing back a return to office (RTO) date is costly — both financially and in terms of retention.
Pushing out 1 to 3 months at a time creates more uncertainty and strain for your employees. They may no longer trust the dates you as an employer put out. Additionally, they will become increasingly frustrated as they make plans around RTO dates, only to have them pushed out weeks before the actual date. The companies that have suffered the least are those who have pushed out 6 months at a time and have assertive communication around their office re-opening plan.
When the time horizon is far enough out, families and individuals alike can make plans about their living situations, schools, childcare… All of those factors are at play when imagining a return to the office. It’s not just about a timeline, creating flexibility in how employees can return is critical to keeping your top talent. Many tech companies, like Figma, Snyk, Thumbtack, and Coinbase are creating changeable elections for employees’ office status — remote, hybrid, or in-office.
Plan for change
As leaders, we’re facing unique challenges and vulnerabilities in thinking through our office re-opening plans. What we move forward with now might not be the best option for our employees down the road — and that’s okay. Our employees are not expecting us to have all of the answers. They know we’re learning and adapting in real-time, too.
What we can do, is listen to our employees and understand their concerns — and make a decision that we think is best for our teams. Then communicate that decision to them clearly and confidently. And hopefully, our decision will provide a level of certainty and structure that our employees are craving after the past year and a half.