Human resources: Back-to-the-oiffice resistance

When World War I ended and U.S. troops were sailing home from France, Americans were listening to the popular vaudeville song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em on the Farm (After They Seen Paree?)” The song posed the musical question: Would the doughboys be willing to return to the drudgery of farm work after having enjoyed the social and cultural delights of Paris?

Might we raise a related question today? How are you going to get the pandemic-created remote workers back into their dreary little cubicles after they’ve enjoyed the advantages of working from the friendly confines of their homes?

Here are some thoughts on the post-pandemic, back-to-the-office controversy roiling today’s workforce.

Lacking a labor contract or applicable government laws and regulations, employers generally have the right to determine the employee’s worksite as it has traditionally been considered a condition of employment.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a once-in-a-lifetime situation where employers, guided by vague recommendations from public health officials and contradictory directions from other government agencies, needed to make quick decisions on the redeployment of the workforce, both for the safety of the employees and customers and the imperative of continuing the operation of the enterprise. I suspect very few organizations had operational policies for such an unexpected emergency already on the shelf and ready for use.

A return-to-work policy for remote workers should include incentives as a more effective approach to gain compliance than the threat of discipline that includes the possibility of dismissal. A hybrid plan that starts out with one day in the office and over many weeks builds to a complete return might ease the pain of transition for resisting employees.

Another approach might be to grandfather those in remote positions and through attrition to gradually reduce the outliers. Employee dismissal should be used only as a last resort as it damages workforce morale and signals that the threat of punitive measures is an acceptable means of gaining employee cooperation.

A third option to draw employees back to the office might involve an upgrade of the company’s work environment, including a more pleasant work area, with amenities such as onsite a workout area, ergonomic furniture and natural lighting, updated desktop technology, healthy food court, recreational or game room that provides for socialization among employees and convenient employer-provided parking.

Retaining highly valued and hard-to-replace workers will require considerable management creativity to keep them in the company. Psychological rewards such as a more impressive job title, public recognition for superior work, more interesting and challenging work and additional time off for personal pursuits may incentivize valuable employees to remain with the company.

Going forward, human resource handbooks should include a policy stating the conditions under which remote work or work from home policies will both be implemented and discontinued. Fairness in the selecting employees under such conditions will be important and should be transparent in its application.

Zoom fatigue has set in among many at-home employees and the return to the office and back into social contact with valued colleagues might well be seen by many as a positive move, as we all have had to adjust to living and working in a pandemic world that was almost unimaginable a few short years ago. Those organizations helping their employees adapt to the new normal post-pandemic work world will have a competitive advantage in the future.