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Overcoming Worker Refusals to Return to the Office (COVID special)

Feb 11, 2021

By Michael Barrell

Today’s post is all about navigating employee refusals to return to the office. Now, to clarify, I’m not just talking about any old refusal to return to the office after a period of absence, I’m talking specifically about instances in which your employees are reluctant to come back in the context of COVID-19. Indeed, right now, many leaders who had hoped to bring workers back en masse are facing a backlash—not least of whom are parents. 

Sound fun? Well I think so. But if not fun, this post will definitely be helpful. So let’s get into it. First up, let me run through the problem so many businesses are facing right now. Then we’ll go through some step-by-step strategies to tackle these COVID-related return to work issues head-on. 

For so many businesses, the preparations have been long and expensive, with companies spending months remodeling work areas and updating safety protocols to get their offices ready for returning workers. The hope of course for corporate leaders has been simple: to coax a nice-sized group of workers back as we approach the end of the year. 

But for some businesses, hope is just about all they have to show for the effort. While some workers are coming back, many are still too worried about the ongoing pandemic to risk exposure. And there’s plenty of experts to say that a lot of the resistance is coming from parents, many of whom are still struggling with back-to-school issues. 

Look at a recent Korn Ferry poll of about 1,000 professionals. It found that over half those individuals expected to be back in their offices by year’s end. And already, some big-name finance and retail firms have managed to sway people back and plan for many more to return. 

But get this. In a recent survey of 15 major employers that collectively employ about 2.6 million people, more than half of those said they had already decided to postpone their back-to-work plans, apparently in part because workers were simply refusing to come in. 

This puts leaders in a pretty tricky place. Besides having billions of dollars tied up in leases and other real estate costs, many businesses generally worry whether all work can even be converted into “work-from-home work”—and whether remote work is stalling creativity and production. Many executives I speak to are beginning to get worried about sophistication dropping and complacency rising. So getting people back into their traditional workplace, according to these executives, could keep this lack of productivity from getting worse or even becoming permanent. 

Now let’s not forget the employees themselves. They have plenty of reason to fear for their health and safety, or worse - yet another upheaval in their work-life balance, especially whilst so many communities are battling second and third waves of COVID. And it’s particularly true for working parents, who feel the timing couldn’t be worse to be asked back. After all, think about this - many schools are still ironing out if they will even teach classes in-person or remotely, or embrace a hybrid approach. 

The simple reality is that there’s anxiety with all the approaches. A lot of parents are loath to leave their kids at home alone during the day, even if they’re supposed to be doing schoolwork, while others worry about their kids getting infected at school. It really isn’t a stretch to imagine that you could wind up with hundreds of people sick and shutting the school back down in a few weeks. And then working parents would be stuck in a situation similar to the one back at the start of this nightmare. 

So what is it that businesses and leaders should actually do? 

Well for starters leaders need to expressly talk about the decision to reopen the office. But not just that, they need to explicitly cover the rationale for opening the office now – at this moment. 

At the same time, during this same conversation with employees, you need to explain the features and procedures you’ve added to the office to help your employees feel safe and lessen their risk to the virus. 

Next up, you should sound out employees to determine their biggest concerns about coming back to the office.  Here’s some examples. If using public transportation is a worry, then maybe consider subsidizing parking costs. Extra childcare benefits or subsidising the cost of hiring someone to watch the kids at home can make some workers more comfortable about returning to the office. The critical thing here is it ask your employees. Every workplace is unique, with unique concerns from employees and unique solutions to allay those concerns. So speak up and ask them. 

For now, some businesses are simply asking for volunteers to come back, if they are comfortable with that. One community health service I know managed to adjust and entire roster, asking for volunteers who wanted to work at times that were most convenient given their particular home situation. So far it’s worked pretty well – it’s improved the service’s productivity and still allows staff to establish and maintain effective social distancing rules at the office. 

So look, there isn’t a silver bullet to return to work refusals. But there are some things that can make the problem a whole lot easier to navigate. So try it out, be open and transparent with your staff, ask what it is that would actually help them, and try to think outside the box a little when it comes to rosters and workplace participation.

If you want more, then head over here to download my free 11-Part Guide to Workplace Wellbeing (And Profit!)

It includes...

  • 6 techniques to boost workforce wellbeing for a healthy and productive workforce
  • 5 common pitfalls in workplace wellbeing that kill employee productivity

And a whole lot more.

These are proven easy-to-follow steps so you can stop flying blind on workplace wellbeing and productivity.

You can grab it, for free, right here.

Also, if you’d like to learn more, meet for like-minded people, or shoot me a question, then head over to my facebook group, the Workplace Wellbeing Made Easy Facebook Community.


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