Picture this scenario. Since late March 2020, all employees at a midwestern technology company had worked from home. Then, in June 2021, all managers receive an email from Kate, the company’s CEO. She announces a decision has been made to permit all employees to work virtually permanently. Kate added that a task force was being formed to study whether the company should downsize their headquarters or even do away with it altogether. She ended on an upbeat note, stating that this was an opportunity for employees to learn new ways to work and for the company to tap into a broader talent pool.
Steve was the company’s CHRO. Three minutes after the email landed in everyone’s inbox, his mobile phone rang. Alisha, the VP of Customer Service, was calling. When he picked up, she skipped all pleasantries and said, “Did you know about the email?”
Steve could tell from her tone Alisha was upset. I did,” he said. “You sound surprised, but you have been in several meetings where this was discussed. I never heard you express any concerns.”
“I didn’t know Kate was ready to make a decision!”
Steve didn’t know what to say to Alisha. He knew that many fellow employees would be cheering about the announcement.
Alisha finally broke the silence. In a sad, quiet voice, she said, “I guess I just assumed work-from-home was temporary. One day, we would all return to the office, and things would go back to normal. That’s not going to happen, is it?”
“No,” Steve said. “It’s not.”
No One Was Prepared for 2020
The pandemic was a situation that no one (except maybe Bill Gates) anticipated and was prepared for. When offices closed and employees were told to work from home, no one knew how long the situation would last.
Much has been written about the psychological effects. In the past year, much has been written about employees who suffered from increased anxiety levels from high levels of uncertainty about current times and concerns about an unpredictable future.
Working in an office provides many benefits, including predictability. We were well-trained to spot the signs and cues that told us we were in a place where we could be safe and happy. When the pandemic kicked us out of familiar spaces, normal cues vanished for the boss and their team. Without familiar cues, it is easier to misinterpret actions and intentions, which leads to higher levels of stress.
One common coping mechanism for dealing with stress is to take comfort in the belief that a situation is temporary. We say, “We will get through this. Things will eventually get back to normal.”
Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon made news when he took that position in an interview, stating that working from home was “not a new normal” for the investment banking giant, calling the past year “an aberration.”
If your company did require employees to return to the office, would they be happy like David Solomon, or would the announcement result in a flurry of whining, protests and demands for HR to intervene?
Making these tough decisions is one situation where leaders will have to step up and lead because there is no clear, singular path forward. That is proven by statistics from a survey by Slack quoted in Fortune. They reported, “Workers are split on returning to the office. Around 3 in 10 workers would never or rarely want to return to the office, while 4 in 10 would like to go back to the old normal.”
There are two camps, do return and don’t return, and HR is likely to get caught between them.
The New Hybrid Reality
Consistent with our 2021 HR Crystal Ball prediction, for Human Resources leaders and their organizations, the pandemic’s impact on employee experience and organizational culture is far from over. As we head into Phase 2, some might even say that the issues they dealt with in 2020 while challenging (especially given the speed and agility required to keep businesses running while responding to local, state, and federal ordinances), were easier to cope with than the grey, murky waters of 2021 and the issues we are now facing. Particularly since 2020 highlighted that, in many cases, it was possible to work and be productive remotely.
Organizations must now balance their established cultural paradigms (in office work) with the reality of a workforce requiring some remote work flexibility level. In a recent Wall Street Journal article sharing results from a survey at the insurer, Prudential, of the 1,043 remote workers surveyed, 9 out of 10 said they would want the option to work from home at least one day per week after the pandemic subsides.
I have had multiple conversations with CHRO’s this year in which they are having to delicately guide their executives through the multiple-pronged puzzle representing the return to office. They frequently shared moments of executive courage, where they had to firmly stand on the other side of their CEO’s desire to implement a mandatory return to office policy. Many highlighted the reality that highly valued, long-standing employees have been afforded the opportunity to make major lifestyle/living decisions during the pandemic (i.e., relocating out of high cost of living areas). HR leaders know it is critical to assess their direct competitor’s policies on the topic as part of their enterprise’s decision-making process. And last but least, leaders are also taking advantage of an opportunity to enlighten executive leadership on the potential benefits and advantages of hybrid work that can far outweigh the organizational adjustments required to make it a reality.
HR leaders who can quickly and diligently get their organizations to embrace this new reality will have a distinct competitive advantage in the war for talent, moving from occasional skirmishes to full-fledged battles.
Return to Office, Not Return to Work
In a recent conversation with a sitting CHRO, she noted that in her company, they are referring to it as “return to office” – not return to work, as she and all of the employees (like many others) never stopped working. They just stopped going into an office. This subtle but essential distinction highlights that employees have been working diligently and, in many cases, harder and longer than before, due to the always-on culture that has developed in many organizations.
One consistent theme in many of my conversations with clients and candidates over the last twelve-plus months is that it has been an unprecedented always-on work period. One HR leader walked me through her typical day, starting with a ZOOM call at 7:00 AM and ending with a ZOOM call at 7:00 PM.
In a period where there were many more questions than answers, and the threshold/tolerance for response times decreased significantly, HR professionals found themselves working harder than ever. One CHRO even poked fun at the situation, telling me, “My title last year was not CHRO; it was CCO. Chief Crisis Officer, as I ran from one crisis to the next in 2020.”
An opportunity exists right now for organizations to genuinely and authentically recognize employees and leaders that have spent the last year burning the midnight oil to ensure that their organizations not only survived but thrived.
Burnout, anxiety, and depression are also part of the new reality, according to a recent article in SHRM, 76% of US employees are experiencing worker burnout.
The Remote Work Quagmire
Everyone goes back to the office. Someone complains. No one goes back. Someone complains. You go from a 5-2 workweek to a 3-2-2, giving people the freedom to choose when they will be in the office and when they will work at home, and you know what – someone will complain.
HR professionals will have to deal with employees who:
- Don’t like change.
- Don’t like THIS
- Are stressing out over how any change will affect performance – either their own, their teammates, or the team they are managing.
When I am faced with seismic changes at work, I always have to stop and recognize that we all perform in an environment where there are multiple levels of unstated assumptions. For many managers, one common assumption has been, “I will be able to observe my people at work,” allowing you to identify slackers.
When everyone works from home, visibility into work habits vanishes, and managers can no longer count on these long-held, unstated assumptions. According to one HBR article, many managers who could not “see” their direct reports also struggled to trust that their employees were working.
Furthermore, the authors share statistics from a study conducted where they polled 1200 managers from 24 countries. Of the people polled, 40% expressed low self-confidence about managing workers remotely, and 38% believed that remote workers performed worse than employees in an office environment.
If 40% of all managers lack self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely, this raises some major red flags when many CEOs are ready to push forward hard. When managers lack confidence because they lack skills, their teams suffer. There is more turnover, more performance issues, and more headaches for HR.
HR leaders will also need to serve as their company’s wise Sherpa, guiding fellow executives to recognize that we have reached a moment in history that is ripe with opportunity. The faster you can convince everyone to move past their complaints, the faster you can start retooling managerial skills for competitive advantage and answering questions, like:
- What options do we have for supervising remote or hybrid teams?
- How will managers manage and assess performance when they cannot directly observe workers?
- Are managers trained to recognize the signs when employees feel socially isolated, demonstrate a lack of engagement, or are burning out?
- What work needs to be done on your culture so people feel like they are part of something meaningful and their contribution matters?
- How does the boss provide enough positive feedback and the proper feedback to fuel their team?
- How do you onboard new employees so they feel included and a part of a group?
Another factor to consider is what John Putzier, author of Weirdos in the Workplace, calls “system slop.” He says that every work environment has a degree of existing leeway, where people feel they can push the limits of formal structures, policies, and procedures without getting into trouble.
When the work environment changes, it is best to look at what your company will and won’t tolerate before an employee pushes perceived new limits. For HR, that means leading “What if?” conversations where executive teams come together, anticipate problems, and formulate how they will be handled.
Someone on your leadership team would likely benefit from training. You could hire someone to address this or offer managers the opportunity to attend an online course. My alma mater, Cornell, offers one appropriately called “Leading Remote Teams.” This is just one of the many options available.
Compassion – A Cultural Mandate
“Fear, uncertainty, loneliness, isolation, disruption—people feel like life is out of control,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation in Washington, DC. “Employers are aware. They’re calling us left and right [for advice].”
Gruttadaro says that employers are trying multiple strategies to help employees cope. Those approaches include:
- Increasing the number of free counseling sessions offered or waiving co-payments for therapy.
- Providing free access to mindfulness and meditation training.
- Checking in regularly with employees to ask about their well-being.
- Teaching managers to spot troubled employees and initiate conversations to offer help.
- Devising communication strategies to remind staff of benefits, such as employee assistance programs and encourage people to use them.
- Bolstering childcare and eldercare benefits.
During a time when many have been indirectly or directly affected by the pandemic, leaders and organizations must make a concerted effort to identify and address the physical and emotional well-being of their employees.
As Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
The pandemic qualified as a crisis for many companies and human resource professionals. The new normal may not feel as frightening. Nevertheless, the decisions made in the coming year will have major implications for the future of your company and your ability to compete in the race for talent – both keeping it and finding it.
HR leaders need to sit in a quiet place and contemplate what changes mean. Old assumptions and thought patterns may need to be discarded. Workers at all levels will probably need new skills to be effective, productive, and happy.
In periods where there is upheaval and change, keep the lines of communication open. Listen and let people know they are not alone in their concerns. Organizations that respond effectively to this crisis will find themselves delivering unique/positive employee experiences, enjoying the benefits of a highly engaged and committed workforce, and ultimately experience better business performance. As Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, said, “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”
By Ruben Moreno
About the Author
After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.” Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.
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