ARTICLE | RETURN TO WORK

The Hidden Consequence of Returning to the Office: Why Employers Need to Prioritize Flexibility and Inclusion

Key Takeaways:

  • Employers should prioritize flexibility and inclusion when deciding on a return-to-work plan.
  • One-size-fits-all approaches to returning to work are not inclusive and may force employees with caregiving responsibilities to leave their positions altogether.
  • Effective and equitable approaches to the office are possible, but they require a willingness to listen to all employees and consider their individual needs.

As the world returns to “normal” post-pandemic, employers have struggled to find an effective, inspiring, and inclusive way to broach the “return to office” conversation. Some have started to bring employees back to the office in a mandatory fashion, while others are taking the time to consider an approach that meets the needs of today’s modern workforce.

 

When organizations take a black and white approach by mandating office presence, the underlying reason is an assumption that employees cannot be as productive at home, or that having a flexible work arrangement means they will take advantage of their employer. However, the data suggests otherwise. As reported in a recent Forbes article, workers who have full schedule flexibility have been found to report 29% higher productivity and 53% greater ability to focus.

While the mandatory return to office approach may work for some individuals, it can also signal that leadership is unaware of the day-to-day complexities and needs that remote work simplifies, and which employees these mandates might leave behind.

 

This is why some of today’s top HR leaders recommend implementing a cycle of employee feedback before forming or rolling out any return-to-office plans.

 

Chad Herring, CHRO at Zoominfo, shares the philosophy his team has taken with Employee Benefit News:

“We needed to be intentional about when we brought people back, and we needed to be thoughtful about their personal situations. COVID has been a paradigm shift for a generation of people in the workplace, impacting their professional and personal lives. Childcare, elder care — things like this have changed over the past few years, and people did not want to have to completely revert back to how they were operating before COVID hit the U.S.”

 

The ability to work from home has become increasingly important for caregivers who need flexibility in their lives, to successfully balance work and family responsibilities.

“There are more caregivers coming out of the pandemic than ever before. From aging parents to chronic conditions, recovery from sudden accidents, new diagnoses etc., caregiving employees are tasked with new financial, logistical, and emotional burdens that may not have existed pre-pandemic. Today, caregiving is the second-largest reason employees are leaving the workforce. This reality affects every team in every organization- in fact, 1 in 5 of your employees is currently caring for a loved one. The challenges they face as the world returns to ‘normal’ will affect their productivity at work, and contribute to retention issues.”

It’s important to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach to returning to work is not inclusive and may force these employees to leave their position altogether. When a return to the office is on the roadmap for your company, it’s critical to have programs and policies in place that not only support their needs, but allow them to comply with return to office policies in a way that makes them more feel focused, productive, and less stressed.

“With added commutes, mandatory in-office policies, and less flexibility in working hours, many employees will be forced to reevaluate their employment. The loss of time and flexibility will affect how many manage their loved one’s care- from transportation to and from doctor’s appointments, staying on top of medications, daily care tasks like eating and bathing, etc., as well as their ability to focus and be productive at work.”

Rather than implement a blanket policy, employers should be asking: ‘what opportunities has newfound flexibility provided that a traditional work structure did not, and how can you continue to support it?’ Chad Herring shares:


“When it comes to the RTO, we’re not looking at hours in the office, so if people have child care arrangements or they take care of a parent, that is completely fine. We view this as more of getting some in-person engagement overlap, how you manage your hours is entirely up to you, and it should fit within the life you have today. The goal is to not be disruptive to employees, but in fact to compliment the way they’re living their personal lives by supporting wellness, flexibility, and giving them the latitude they need to be able to take care of themselves and their families.”


On the other hand, some employees and caregivers are waiting for the opportunity to come back into the office. Many will find the separation necessary and even a welcome break from their home life, providing them a change of pace and environment for better productivity and mental health. What’s important is to have the option, the consideration, and the flexibility to choose what works best for each individual’s circumstances– according to McKinsey, 87% of Americans desire a flexible work environment that allows for both office and virtual work.

The bottom line is, an effective and equitable approach to the office is possible, but it requires a willingness to listen to all employees and consider their individual needs. Employers must acknowledge that the pandemic has changed the way we work and that returning to a physical office may not be the best option for everyone. By implementing programs and policies that support their employees’ needs, companies can create a more inclusive and productive work environment. It’s time to prioritize the well-being and needs of employees, especially caregivers, and create a new normal that works for everyone.

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