Did you get the return to the office right?

For many of us, the time has come to leave behind the back-to-back Zoom meetings and start wearing formal attire again. While we’re feeling a little nostalgic about the days of banana bread recipes, lunchtime walks and online PE lessons, we knew that this day would (almost certainly) come. As we start to settle back into the chairs that lay vacant behind monitors that haven’t been switched on for almost two years, we’re asking the question -did your company get the return to the office right?

After the unprecedented couple of years that we’ve all had, it has become clearer than ever that a better work/life balance was perhaps the greatest gift that the pandemic gave us. Remote working has numerous benefits for family life and finances, but it also opens doors that were previously closed for workers with physical disabilities. Naturally, many employees are reluctant to give that up and hybrid working patterns have never been more attractive. In 2022, business leaders must focus on facilitating a return to the office that considers each individual employee’s circumstances and retains a happy, productive, diverse and inclusive workforce.

Empathy is key

There was a time when economists insisted that organisations’ only focus should be on making money for their shareholders. In a world of war, debt and pandemics, this doesn’t quite work, so leadership styles must evolve with what’s relevant. Global thinktank Hack Future Lab found that 84% of business leaders agree that empathy is crucial to success and 60% agree that empathy really matters. However, over half of these leaders said that empathy wasn’t a strength within their organisation and definitely isn’t a priority.

Workplace burnout is now a WHO recognised condition. A study by Qualtrics included 2000 workers from the UK, US, France, Germany, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. 42% said that their mental health has declined since the beginning of the pandemic and 38% of everyone surveyed reported that their company hadn’t reached out to them to ask if they were OK. Only two in five of surveyed employees felt supported by their manager and less than half felt that their manager was in tune with their wellbeing.

A study by Catalyst surveyed 900 US employees. An interesting finding was that only 40% of women of colour felt valued and respected in their workplace compared to 64% of white men. Empathy could play a significant role in maintaining a healthy and happy diverse, inclusive workforce and it’s clear that empathy needs to be bumped further up leaders’ lists of priorities.

Leading with empathy

Of course, being empathetic shouldn’t just be a management responsibility and it should be valued within every team member. A strong D&I strategy can help to filter empathy into the company culture. It takes time to build but there is plenty of evidence that suggests that employees who feel supported and heard by their leaders are more productive. The Catalyst study found that 61% of workers with empathetic managers were often or always innovative at work compared to just 13% of workers with less empathetic managers. So, how can leaders begin to explicitly show empathy and bake it into the company culture during the return to the office?

It’s a misconception that an employee’s proximity to their boss is equal to that employee’s productivity. A 2019 study found that remote workers work on average 1.4 extra days a month and are only idle around 27 minutes a day compared to the 37 minutes of office workers. However, fears about being left out of office-based activities and promotion opportunities have been listed as a major reason for resignation by remote workers, so it is definitely a very real phenomenon.

Empathetic leaders will implement a strategy to ensure that proximity bias does not affect their workers and that every employee knows that they’re valued, whether they choose to be office-based or not. Empathetic leaders will take their employees’ life circumstances, such as whether they have a disability or whether they are parents or carers, into consideration and fully support flexible working hours. Empathetic leaders are open, honest and willing to listen to their workers’ concerns. Becoming more employee-centric rather than office-centric is key to becoming a highly empathetic leader.

Once employees feel understood by their leader, the mutual benefits open up. Having a framework in place that allows leaders to check in with their workers -both those in the office and those working remotely- creates an equal, collaborative environment that boosts trust, loyalty and productivity. Creating a mentoring system can provide leaders with insights into how their employees are feeling. This information can be used to drive effective, empathetic communication and prevent workplace burnout. D&I consultancy and training can help businesses incorporate these measures and get the return to the office right for everyone.

Should a return to the office be mandatory?

While tech giants such as Apple, Google and Twitter have introduced hybrid working patterns, there are a few big companies who are still insisting on a full return to the office. Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon believes that in-person communication is central to ‘the eco-system of the firm’. Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings has also said that he doesn’t see many positives to remote working.

The Future Forum recently discovered that just 3% of US Black knowledge workers want to return to the office full time compared to 21% of their white colleagues. Reasons suggested for this range from the no longer needed ‘code-switching’ in order to fit into a predominantly white workspace, avoiding micro-aggressions in the office and a genuine desire to avoid a virus that ethnic minorities are particularly susceptible to. A team of US economists also found that 34% of women with young children would like to work remotely full time compared to 26% of men. A full return to the office is unlikely to coincide with a happy, diverse workforce and leaders need to be aware of that.

While the vast majority of employees are enticed by the idea of hybrid working, there is a small percentage of workers who would like to be back in the office full-time. One big reason for this could be social isolation. The global Qualtrics study found that 75% of workers at all levels feel more socially isolated than they did before the pandemic due to less in-person interactions.

Returning to the office has other perks too. As a new employee, remote working perhaps makes it harder to acclimatise to company knowledge and culture. Working from home largely removes casual conversations between colleagues, as all interactions are scheduled. It’s not difficult to see how this could prevent meaningful connections from forming and maybe even lead to remote employees becoming unsure of their purpose or sense of belonging within a company.

Remote working: Success Stories

If you’re still nervous about making the leap from a full office return to a more flexible working pattern, here are some inspiring stories from successful businesses who have harnessed the benefits of remote working:

Australian software company Atlassian recently introduced a ‘work from anywhere’ policy for its 7000 employees. Annie Dean leads distributed workforce strategy at the company and has said that ‘in the future, work is not a place. It can happen anywhere.’ Atlassian employees have the luxury of living in any country, in which the business has a presence and it’s still their choice whether they work in an office or not. Since launching the policy, Atlassian have recruited another 2000 workers around the world and almost half of them live over two hours away from an Atlassian office.

Computer manufacturers Dell created their remote working scheme, Connected Workplace, before the pandemic and maintains that technology makes it possible to work from anywhere. HR Director Mohammed Chahdi says that executive leaders who work remotely must ‘continually show team members that we trust them to organise their work in a way that meets both their personal and professional priorities.’ In 2021, Dell was announced as one of the ‘most ethical companies in the world’ for the ninth year in a row.

Yahoo Japan now allows its 8000 employees to work from anywhere within Japan. Having seen the benefits of remote working on the personal lives of his employees, company president Kentaro Kawabe has announced that workers who choose to live outside of Tokyo will be eligible to claim travel expenses, should they ever be required to come into the office. As a result, 90% of Yahoo Japan employees now work remotely, are able to spend more time with their families in rural areas and enjoy a better work/life balance.

Getting the return to the office right

Both sides of the return to the office debate raise valid points and there really isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Business leaders must assess what is right for their company and employees. However, empathy and inclusion have to be at the forefront of leaders’ minds when putting together a return to office strategy.

During the pandemic, many companies extended support and understanding to their employees with regard to issues such as childcare and mental health in ways that they perhaps hadn’t before. Therefore, employees’ expectations of their relationships with their managers have shifted to include a more emotional, personal tone. Remote working and new technologies mean that managers no longer have to monitor their employees’ performance in the same way as before and so, they can start to re-focus on how their workers are really feeling.

Embracing the true power of empathy and inclusion into your workplace will undoubtedly improve your company’s ESG efforts. It will indicate to investors that you are a forward-thinking, employee-centric business. Contact GDP today to see how we can help you facilitate a return to the office that will ensure that all of your workers feel heard and valued.

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