Over the last few months, many SMEs will have been working to their new hybrid working policies now social restrictions have eased. But getting people to actually come in when they’re supposed to is a new challenge on the wider business agenda. When employees have proven they’ve worked productively from home for 18 months, some of those hesitant to return will wonder why they’re being forced back into the office.
But a huge mistake that businesses can make is coming down too heavy-handed and policing with an iron fist who isn’t at their ‘desk’. This could damage trust and make your employees less likely to come in for the long-term / as well as create a negative culture – something that easily spreads at a smaller business.
It’s completely understandable why SMEs will want their employees back in on a regular basis, as their people should be at the heart of their business – a collaborative physical space can hold many benefits for creative thinking, career mentoring and helping reinforce the culture of a company. But for businesses to switch back to seeing this as the only space in which people can truly do team-working and develop will forget the lessons learnt over the last year. So how can you achieve the right balance of hybrid working and persuade reluctant employees back into the office?
Common issues and how to resolve them
It’s unrealistic and demoralising to expect employees to return to an office five days a week and that is something employers will need to accept, otherwise they will risk losing talent to other companies which offer full flexibility. It’s important for SMEs to acknowledge, respect and resolve the common issues behind why some won’t return to the office:
- Some employees will have care / childcare responsibilities as well as the usual school run. As many parents know, having children makes your life unpredictable, and not everyone has social support / family to look after their offspring. As a parent myself, being able to balance childcare more easily due to working from home has meant I’ve been able to still excel at work and spend more time with family. Many parents, who struggled with this balance before may be reluctant to come in. It’s all about trust and respect and being open to agile working options. They may be more likely to come into the office, if they know they can adjust their working hours around their caring responsibilities.
- If the office environment is to put it bluntly – ugly, uncomfortable or not conducive to team working – this could be why some people would prefer to work from home – a productive space which has been curated to their own tastes over the last 18 months. The look, comfortability and feel of an office should be taken seriously. Look to companies such as wework – you may be able to replicate these on a small scale. It sounds superficial, but making an office pleasant could lure people back in.
Little things can make a difference, even if you can’t afford an office makeover. A functioning and free coffee machine, as well as free treats handed out can do more in morale and make employees feel appreciated.
- Social interaction is another reason why people want to return, but if no one’s there it can put employees off. They aren’t just coming for the desk and the chair, they’re coming to socialise and work with their colleagues. This can be difficult if many employees aren’t returning and only a handful are, as it could dissuade these few from coming in regularly.
Organise social events – At IMD, we’re a very international and diverse company so each month we hold a team lunch where we try a different cuisine. This also means people with responsibilities outside of work can make it too. Drinks after work can bring people together and build social relationships which will benefit the workplace.
However not everyone is a social butterfly, some of your employees may be more introverted, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work as hard. Employers should assess on a case by case basis if they really need to force someone back in the office – would it harm their mental health and ability to carry out work? To make them feel included keep up regular communication with individuals who would prefer to work from home permanently and invite them to events, even if you know they won’t attend.
- Equally not everyone has a smooth commute – and the time being have gained at home from no longer spending their spare time on delayed trains and in traffic jams – means there is a less of an incentive to return to the office.
Consider offering benefits such as cycle to work schemes and audio book subscriptions so employees don’t feel they are wasting time on their commute. Cycle to work scheme has the equal benefit of being tax saving as well. I have begun cycling to work this year and whilst pedalling have listened to business audiobooks too. Improving my personal and professional development, along with the time and travel costs saved, as well as exercise, has made my commute so much more enjoyable.
It’s also worth engaging employees in your solutions – ask for feedback and send out surveys to employees about what they would like to have in the office / what could encourage them to attend more regularly. Have an open-mind to their ideas and involve them in the decision-making process. This will help you as the employer understand what your employees value from the physical working environment.
Keep up communication and keep an open door policy too. Trusting that your employees will do a good job for you from whereever they work can be a self-fulfilling cycle. Simon Sinek said that, “When leaders are willing to prioritise trust over performance, performance almost always follows” some firms forget the benefits that can arise from trusting your employees. Don’t see employees that return to the office as the ones that care the most about the business – it’s not true for the reasons above. Trust and value can be more conducive to productivity than presenteeism.
Author: Marcin Durlak, Solicitor and Managing Partner at IMD Solicitors LLP