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Is Forcing Employees Back to the Office With Increased Workload the Right Move?

This is a true story.

Once upon a time there was a company, one of the most important in that country. Its managers didn't like the remote work, since they were all divorced and lacked their personal life, so, they tried to find ways by any means to force their people back to the office.

After several failed attempts at persuading employees to work full-time in the office, the company devised a plan. They informed the teams involved in a major acquisition that they would need to return to the office full-time, even eliminating the few remote work days previously allowed. This change was accompanied by an increase in workload, causing significant discontent among employees. Many chose to resign from their jobs, despite not having secured another job opportunity.

The managers didn't take the following into consideration when they forced their people back to the offices while increasing their workload:

1. Employee Burnout and Stress:

- Commuting: Returning to the office means reintroducing commuting into employees' daily routines. Commutes can be time-consuming and mentally draining, especially if employees have to navigate traffic or public transportation.

- Workload: Increased workload, whether due to a backlog of tasks, new projects, or restructuring, adds pressure on employees. Balancing this with the demands of commuting and being present in the office can lead to heightened stress levels.

- Flexibility: Remote work provided employees with the flexibility to structure their days around their personal needs, such as childcare or health appointments. Losing this flexibility can be stressful, particularly for those who have come to rely on it.

2. Loss of Productivity and Engagement:

- Distractions: Offices can be noisy and full of distractions, from chatty coworkers to impromptu meetings. For employees who found solace and focus in the quiet of their home offices, the transition back to a bustling workplace may disrupt their productivity.

- Adaptation: Adapting to new routines and environments takes time and effort. Employees may struggle initially as they readjust to the rhythms of office life, leading to a temporary dip in productivity and engagement.

- Remote Work Benefits: Many employees experienced increased productivity while working remotely, citing fewer interruptions and more focused work time. Losing these benefits without a clear understanding of how to replicate them in the office can be demotivating.

3. Resistance to Change and Decreased Morale:

- Change Fatigue: Employees may already be fatigued from the numerous changes brought about by the pandemic, such as remote work, layoffs, and economic uncertainty. Adding the pressure of a return to the office and a merger can exacerbate this fatigue and lead to resistance to further change.

- Uncertainty: Mergers and acquisitions often bring uncertainty about job security, roles, and organizational culture. Layering this uncertainty with the upheaval of returning to the office can create a sense of instability and decrease morale among employees.

- Trust Issues: If employees perceive the decision to return to the office as unilateral and lacking consideration for their well-being, it can erode trust in leadership. Open communication and transparency are crucial for addressing these concerns and maintaining employee morale.

4. Impact on Work-Life Balance and Well-being:

- Time Constraints: Longer commutes and rigid office hours can eat into employees' personal time, leaving them with less time for relaxation, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones.

- Mental Health: Balancing increased workloads, the stress of commuting, and the uncertainty of a merger can take a toll on employees' mental health. Employers must prioritize mental health resources and support systems to help employees cope with these challenges.

- Boundary Blurring: Remote work allowed employees to create physical and mental boundaries between work and home life. Returning to the office can blur these boundaries, leading to feelings of being constantly "on" and impacting overall well-being.

5. Challenges in Integration and Collaboration:

- Cultural Differences: Mergers often involve bringing together employees from different organizational cultures. Fostering a sense of belonging and collaboration among these diverse groups can be challenging, particularly when employees are physically separated by remote work or returning to different office locations.

- Communication Barriers: Remote work can create communication barriers, making it harder for employees to collaborate effectively. Returning to the office may improve face-to-face communication but could exacerbate digital communication challenges for remote or hybrid teams.

- Team Dynamics: Returning to the office can disrupt existing team dynamics, particularly if some team members continue to work remotely. Building trust and camaraderie among team members, regardless of their physical location, is essential for maintaining productivity and collaboration.

Still, instead of demotivating their teams by forcing them to return to the office, the company could have approached a different strategy.

Here are some steps they can implement:

1. Transparent Communication:

- Communicate openly and transparently with employees about the reasons for the changes, the timeline, and how it will impact them. Address concerns and questions promptly, and provide regular updates throughout the process.

2. Flexible Work Options:

- Offer flexible work arrangements, such as remote work or hybrid models, to accommodate employee preferences and needs. Flexibility can help employees maintain work-life balance and adapt to changes more easily.

3. Support for Adjustment:

- Provide resources and support to help employees adjust to changes, such as training programs, mentorship opportunities, and access to counseling services for managing stress and anxiety.

4. Recognition and Appreciation:

- Recognize and appreciate employees for their hard work and contributions during times of change. Celebrate milestones and successes, and acknowledge the challenges they may be facing.

5. Opportunities for Growth:

- Provide opportunities for professional development and career advancement to show employees that their growth and success are valued. Offer training programs, mentorship opportunities, and clear pathways for advancement within the organization.

6. Employee Involvement:

- Involve employees in decision-making processes and solicit their input on matters that affect them. This can help foster a sense of ownership and commitment among employees and increase their engagement in the organization.

7. Clear Expectations and Feedback:

- Set clear expectations for performance and provide regular feedback to employees on their work. Offer constructive feedback and guidance for improvement, and recognize and reward their achievements.

8. Well-being Initiatives:

- Implement well-being initiatives to support employees' physical and mental health. This can include wellness programs, flexible work hours, access to counselling services, and initiatives to promote work-life balance.

9. Strong Leadership:

- Provide strong leadership and direction during times of change. Leaders should be visible, accessible, and empathetic to employee concerns, and should actively engage with employees to address their needs and concerns.

10. Culture of Support:

- Foster a culture of support and inclusivity where employees feel valued, respected, and supported. Encourage open communication, collaboration, and teamwork, and address any issues or conflicts that arise promptly and effectively.

It's still strange how things might seem so obvious and yet so many can't see them. Unfortunately, as Peter Drucker wrote, "culture eats strategy for breakfast". And when the culture is poor, strategy is lacking.

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