A return to in-person work in one form or another is imminent. Whether organizations bring back their entire staff, schedule a staggered presence, or plan to congregate on demand, the pandemic work life that everyone has grown accustomed to will be changing for the majority of businesses and staff. Even if these changes don’t have an impact on roles and responsibilities, they will likely have an effect on company dynamics, team engagement, work hours, and scheduling flexibility. For some, it may be as easy as a welcomed return to a comfortable routine. For others it can be uprooting a new way of life that they have grown accustomed to living and truly value.
[Strategies for Returning to Work Safely (opens in new tab)]
Return to in-person work not only means a return to the office, but also a return to travel and time away from family. This may be an opportunity for some to leave their house, get out of town, and change up the monotony of working remotely; however, it can be a burden for others who have made significant adjustments to their daily routine and found peace in their simpler stay-at-home life. Through readily available conferencing tools like Zoom and Teams, many have seen their time optimized by finding productive alternatives to a life on the road.
Regardless of your experiences, return to in-person work represents a shift in approach, a need to adjust habits, and most significantly, a change in behavior. We know from Isaac Newton and the law of inertia that change only comes with significant effort. The manner by which organizations implement change and how team members respond can be a difference maker in their collective success, cultural dynamic, productivity, and future relationship.
While the return to in-person business is inevitable, how it is handled can present a critical juncture in the career path of team members and overall health of organizations. To reach a successful outcome, both employers and employees need to find a common middle ground and avoid digging in their heels to get what they want.
It would appear that the employer has the upper hand in the relationship as the one who signs the paychecks and possesses the power to dictate what is required of their employees. While this may have been the case upon hiring, the past year forced a recalibration and presented options for new ways of working that resulted in a loss of leverage for employers. Employees who have grown accustomed to working remotely and who find it desirable and effective might find the change back to in-person work difficult and unappealing. If an ultimatum is presented and there is no room for accommodation, work will suffer and employees will eventually pursue alternative arrangements that are more suitable.
Since there are two sides to any equation, it is important to consider what's fueling the employer's standpoint. Many employers have struggled to adjust to new ways of doing business and are eager to regain their pre-pandemic success. Regardless of whether the correlation is accurate, working remotely has become synonymous with business decline in the eyes of many organizations. An employer that is struggling to recover may be anxious to resume in-person work, which they believe is the easiest path to “business as usual." The proposition of remaining remote appears too risky at such a critical juncture. Additionally, many companies that have significant investments in office space don't want to leave these assets embarrassingly unused.
While some may consider this situation an impasse, the answer to this predicament likely lies in the ability to compromise, demonstrate consideration, and ease concerns. Although some employees who have proven themselves effective at remote work feel they have earned the privilege to maintain that arrangement, it shouldn't be presumed. Rather than demand a work arrangement that may appear one-sided, employees should present a case that addresses their employer's fears and ensure the employer doesn’t feel short-changed. The employee should instill confidence in the employer that they are receiving added value and the organization will thrive by considering a remote working arrangement. Some examples include trading commute time for work time, reducing office and travel expenses, working more effectively with the absence of interruptions, and demonstrating appreciation and positivity that is translated to a healthy work culture and magnetic client engagement.
Similarly, employers should seek ways to soften the impact of in-person work by demonstrating understanding and compassion. While it may seem appropriate and easy to issue a blanket policy, it would likely be more prudent to customize an approach based on personality, role, type of work, or personal circumstances.
If everyone takes the time to recall the challenges, fears, and uncertainty that we have collectively endured as the pandemic unfolded, it should bring back memories of how quickly work took a backseat to family, health, and safety for most industries and organizations. In comparison, readjustment to a new arrangement that includes in-person work seems like a relatively minor imposition. Now that there is an apparent light at the end of the tunnel, rather than overlooking the goodwill and relationship equity that has been built throughout the most difficult times, use it as a springboard to find an arrangement where employers and employees can be put at ease while their organization prospers.
Steve Greenblatt, CTS, is president and founder of Control Concepts (opens in new tab), a provider of specialized software and services for the audiovisual industry.