The pandemic is coming to an end, with over 43% of adults in the United States currently being fully vaccinated, many employers are beginning to see an opportunity to bring employees back into the office. The underlying reasons for this range from a perceived loss in company culture, to the simple fact, that older executives wish to return to the way things have always been done. Regardless of the reason though, many employers are finding a workforce that has changed in the past sixteen months. Employees that are placing additional emphasis on the flexibility and lifestyle that work from home has offered them. It’s a little like Pandora's box, now that it has been opened, can we ever really return to the old normal? Even with this knowledge, many employers have decided that a forced return to the office is something they are willing to consider and this choice comes with risks not only to company culture, but to the business itself. Let’s take a look at what these companies can expect as a result of this type of decision.
- Reduced Employee Engagement
When you were in school, remember what it was like to go to your least favorite class, the one that you simply couldn’t stand for one reason or another. The class may have been boring, the teacher too monotone, or the subject material too dense or easy. The reason doesn’t matter, but the feeling of dread you had, and subsequent reduction in engagement do. Those are the same feelings that are being elicited by the prospect of a forced return to full-time office work. Many employees enjoy the solitary nature of work from home, contrary to the overarching narrative that office culture is beneficial to everyone. Additionally, anytime an individual is forced to do something that they don’t wish to do, their engagement rate falls. It’s much more difficult to remain engaged when the feeling of being forced to do something is the driving force behind an action. Businesses that opt for a forced return structure will be looking at a large percentage of employees that are not nearly as engaged as they were prior to the pandemic. This effect has an unknown shelf life, but if it’s anything like dreading your least favorite class, it could last for quite a while.
2. Loss of Top Talent to Remote Competitors
This is arguably the most dangerous problem for companies, especially those that operate within an industry that has adopted a full-time remote workforce across the industry. If a company forces employees to return to the office regardless of their personal feelings regarding work from home, while the remainder of the industry adopts a more nuanced approach that allows for full-time remote work, they are likely to not only lose employees but specifically to lose their top-performing employees first. The better employment prospects that someone has, the easier it will become for them to move to another company. This means that the cascading effect will likely start from the top of the talent pool, and slowly move downward. In a post-pandemic world that currently is very employee-favored, enticing talent to return is likely to be a tall order for many companies, even if they later change their remote work situation.
3. Reduced Production
Production is a byproduct of engagement, skills, and workflow. If an employee is highly engaged, has the relevant skills needed, and is placed in a system that allows them to utilize these skills, they are productive. Now, taking into account the above problems, if employees have their engagement level reduced but retain their skills and are placed in a new workflow, it’s likely their productivity will suffer. In a forced return situation, businesses are likely looking at a substantial decrease in production in the short term, with long-term implications as talent continues to leave and the skills portion of that equation drops. It’s likely that workflow will also be impacted in the short term by ongoing COVID restrictions, and the natural hesitancy experienced by many people to maintain close contact with others. Imagine trying to convince 25 apprehensive employees to stand shoulder to shoulder in a closed-air meeting room for an hour, is it realistic to believe that you will have the very best version of them present to mull new concepts and generate novel ideas?
4. Loss of Company Culture
Company culture is a fickle mistress, something that every company tries to achieve or maintain, but few manage. In the era of post-COVID, many companies have pointed to company culture as the driving force behind their decision-making, but those decisions are likely to have a direct negative impact on the thing they are desperately trying to preserve. Not everyone in this day and age needs company culture to be a productive member of a team, and more and more research is showing that the open office space and forced interaction we all believed was key, is actually hurting employee engagement and productivity. Company culture will likely splinter into groups of employees who see the forced return differently. Those that missed the office will fall back into the same routines as before, while those who feel slighted will likely become active detractors. Company culture cannot survive this type of split, and it’s very difficult for management to mend this rift once opened.
In the end, every company is different, and the business needs also differ. However, if aging management is the driving force behind the return to office strategy in a company, it may be time to take a second look at those plans and try to truly understand the potential impacts. Many managers believe that employees will simply “get over it”, but they are likely to find out that this happens through a number of avenues that will directly impact the bottom line. Maybe allowing them to continue their remote work wouldn’t look like such a bad idea in that light.