Returning To The Office – Why Staff Might Resist It?

man and woman work at separate desks - returning to the office

Jurisdictions in Canada and around the world are hastening towards a post-pandemic economy, and many companies have begun calling employees back to the office.
After 2 years of remote working in many sectors, you’d think everyone was eager to “get back to normal” again. Except there are new challenges to consider, and many employees are finding they aren’t yet ready to return to the office full time.
 

According to a recent PEW Research study, “60% of workers with jobs that can be done from home say when the coronavirus outbreak is over, if they have the choice, they’d like to work from home all or most of the time. Among those who are currently working from home all or most of the time, 78% say they’d like to continue to do so after the pandemic.”  (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2022/02/16/covid-19-pandemic-continues-to-reshape-work-in-america/ ) 

Hesitation to return to the office full time is rooted in a number of issues, and companies need to consider how they can work with their staff to create an eased reopening plan, especially in light of “the great resignation” and one of the tightest hiring markets in recent memory. We simply cannot afford to alienate swathes of people who have been successfully working at home for 2 years, by forcing a rushed return to the office. People need time to adjust, not just their mindsets, but their household budgets, their schedules, and other dynamics. 

Reasons staff could be resisting a full time return to the office:

 

  • High childcare costs: 
    A return to the office full-time means a return spending on average $21,000 per year on childcare costs in cities like Toronto, Mississauga, Vancouver, etc. 
    2019 national survey of child care fees, found that Ontario cities had the highest median full-time centre based and regulated home child care infant fees in the country at $1,774 a month or $21,288 annually. ( https://findingqualitychildcare.ca/ontario ). Learn more about the cost of childcare in the cities where your worker pool is drawn from by downloading the report.
Graph depicting cost of childcare in Canadian cities
From the "2019 national survey of child care fees"
  • Record high gas prices: 
    Events on the world stage such as the war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on the Russian energy industry have meant petrol prices around the world are seeing huge increases, causing rises in commuting costs and price of basic goods. Simply put, maintaining a car, buying a transit pass, and purchasing basic goods like groceries, home heating services, etc. is costing more every day. Not going into the office full time is helping families stretch their budgets a little bit further.  
    https://ottawa.citynews.ca/local-news/gas-prices-inflation-impacting-consumer-confidence-experts-5155268
  •  Removal of mask mandates: 
    There is much anxiety around the impact that the end of mask mandates in various municipalities will have on those who live with vulnerable people or are themselves immuno-compromised. Your staff who have children under 5 who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, or who care for elderly parents, or those who have compromised immune systems themselves, may be worried that they will be pressured to give up mask wearing. The lack of masking at work may be especially anxiety inducing, since it becomes more difficult to properly socially distance in the office if everyone is back to work full time.
Toddler wearing medical mask
  • Increase in time spent commuting to work:
    Many found a better work/life balance due to less time spent commuting to and from work.  “(64%) of those who are now working from home at least some of the time but rarely or never did before the pandemic say it’s easier now for them to balance work with their personal life.”. They’re seeing more of their family, and less time stuck in traffic. They can get chores, like laundry and cooking done while they’re working, freeing up even more time in the early mornings and evenings for exercise and social time: all of which makes for better creativity and productivity at work.
    (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2022/02/16/covid-19-pandemic-continues-to-reshape-work-in-america/)

     

Solution? Embrace A Slow Transition… 

Returning to work in a “hybrid” model (some days in-office, some remote-working) may be a good solution for many. “60% of workers with jobs that can be done from home say when the coronavirus outbreak is over, if they have the choice, they’d like to work from home all or most of the time. This is up from 54% who said the same in 2020.”. If your company is working hard to retain its workforce in the world of large numbers of resignations, this option will give you something to offer as preferred benefit. 
(
https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2022/02/16/covid-19-pandemic-continues-to-reshape-work-in-america/ )


If it’s imperative that staff come back full time, then a phased approach (1 or 2 days a week over 4 to 6 months until back up to 5 days a week) may offer the kind of adjustment that staff can work with. It takes time for people to re-engineer the way their household budgets, child-care services, and family schedules have been operating. Companies who can take this empathetic approach to the challenges their teams are experiencing will have the best chance of retaining their valued and experienced staff, as well as attracting the new hires they need to move confidently into a post-pandemic economy.
 

How can you reassure your staff that it’s safe to return?

  • Publicize your infection control measures, such as: increased cleaning and disinfection protocols, Covid-screening procedures,  contact tracing processes, etc.
  • Make it safe for staff to choose to mask or not: through email communications, posters, and in-person discussions, make it clear that individuals are encouraged to make a personal risk assessment decision on whether to continue to mask. Use this as an opportunity to educate everyone on reasons why people may choose to continue masking, so as to destigmatize the practice. Talking about how people may even choose to mask during cold and flu season can also help people understand that it is not just a political statement, but rather a pubic health tool that should be used as needed or as people feel is appropriate, based on their own personal risk assessments.
  • Make it easy for people to work from home when there is a Covid-exposure, or they are symptomatic: avoid creating the perception that those that “power through” their symptoms and come to work “even when they’re not feeling well” is a sign of their  dedication to the company. You’re forcing people to come to work sick and increase the odds of an outbreak of illness in your staff.

Other great ideas can be found in these articles:

https://www.fastcompany.com/90728684/7-ways-companies-can-eash-the-transition-from-remote-to-hybrid-work

https://atriumhealth.org/dailydose/2022/03/09/how-to-manage-back-to-the-workplace-anxiety-and-stress

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