How to steer clear of ‘employee whiplash’ if driving a return to the office
On Valentine’s Day, Microsoft showed its affection to staff by announcing plans to reopen its Washington state and California Bay Area offices on February 28 — but will workers love it?
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the technology titan had indefinitely postponed return-to-work plans for its 103,000 employees, last September. But now its hybrid-working strategy has been revealed, and staff members are being called back into the office, it will likely spur other prominent organizations to follow suit.
But could the sudden shift from remote to in-office working cause what Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner’s HR practice, calls “employee whiplash”? And, if so, what are the likely short- and long-term effects, and how can they be avoided?
“As more organizations start to mandate a return to the office, employers need to recognize this will be yet another disruption in what has been two difficult years for employees,” said Kropp. Leaders must not fall into the trap of thinking, “it’s a return to what we were doing before, so it doesn’t count,” and therefore underestimate its impact, he warned.
“Organizations should communicate their reopening plans to employees well in advance of the actual date, indicate safety measures, and define their hybrid-work strategies,” added Kropp. He points to a 2021 Gartner survey of more than 2,400 office workers showing 55% agreed that their employer’s approach to flexibility will determine whether they will remain at the company.
“Employers that favor a ‘hard return’ — a mandatory return to an on-site location for most of the work week — will continue to see increased turnover as workers move to roles and companies that offer an employee value proposition that better aligns with their desires,” Kropp said.
Beware unmanaged stress
In a similar vein, Richard Wahlquist, president and CEO of the American Staffing Association, said: “The Great Resignation means employers are in a war for qualified talent, and flexible work schedules are an important way to attract and retain workers.” A recent ASA survey, conducted with The Harris Poll, supports this statement. Some 41% of respondents indicated they are likely to job hunt within the next year, and 35% are likely to change careers. In addition, one in four workers who said they were looking for a new job cited the ability to work remotely, at least some of the time.
Now, though, Microsoft has fired the starting pistol on a return to the office, as its announcement will “inspire more companies to follow suit,” said Scotland-based Kevin Thomson, corporate healthcare director at Nuffield Health. With old workplace routines “a distant memory,” after two years of remote working, the threat of employee whiplash is significant. “This is especially true for certain groups, including new parents — who have not yet balanced the stresses of parenthood and office working — ‘young returners’ working in the gig economy or unsteady hours, and ‘remote joiners’ who have never experienced office life,” he said.
Thomson defines employee whiplash as “a negative impact among those emotionally and physically unprepared for a sudden switch from full-time remote working to being back in the office, either part- or full-time.” Left unchecked, this can lead to massive issues. “The effects of this disruption and uncertainty may see employees struggling to cope without a routine and turn to unhealthy habits as they experience the stress and anxiety of a change in environment,” he said. “Long-term, this unmanaged stress may lead to fatigue, musculoskeletal problems and emotional well-being symptoms like low mood and depression.”
Adjustment period required
In the workplace, these effects of whiplash may appear as a measurable decline in work standards, suggests Thomson, and changes to behavior such as irritability, low mood, tiredness and an inability to concentrate. To limit the damage, he recommends employers “emphasize the role of continuing healthy habits. For example, offering greater flexibility around working hours on office days encourages employees to stick to new exercise routines and affords them time to make a nutritious breakfast instead of grabbing fast food during a rushed morning commute.”
South Africa-based Ashley Lourens, head of well-being and a therapist at global well-being provider Plumm also calls for more leniency from bosses. “Change can be unsettling, and some may find it difficult to return to their old routines immediately, so employers need to understand there will be an adjustment period,” she said. “Without this, it could lead someone to become self-critical, damaging their self-esteem and confidence. Employees may also feel demotivated over the amount of time ‘lost’ to getting ready for and commuting to the office.”
Leaders have to hear the demands of their staff or their business faces extinction, argues Boston-based Paul McKinlay, vice president of communications and remote working at VistaPrint and Cimpress. And copying Microsoft is not necessarily wise.
“The comet that is remote working is heading directly for the corporate dinosaurs who are not listening to what their team members are telling them they want,” he said. McKinlay has coined the term “shybrid” to describe the uncertainty companies create by continually pushing back return dates without declaring a future model — so people are left in limbo. “Otherwise progressive companies have been prevaricating with non-committal ‘shybrid’ working policies, before eventually coming clean and demanding all team members back to the office.”
McKinlay states that factors like extra commuting time, earlier starts, and the “reimposition of office inmate status” will be enough to make many team members forced back to the office reconsider their job. “We are advocating responding to the Great Resignation with the ‘Great Conversation,’” he said. “Company-wide mandates for full time office working seem increasingly wide of the mark and disconnected c-suites will see far reaching implications of not listening to team members’ needs.
Moreover, there is a “missed opportunity to drive cultural, cognitive and geographical diversity by hiring from a global talent pool, instead of hiring people who live within X miles of your real estate.”
His advice? “Embrace flexibility, trust your team members and upskill your organization to thrive remotely. Whichever way you intend to go, please give your employees the respect of certainty and transparency — while in-office or hybrid might not be right for everyone, ‘shybrid’ isn’t the right approach for anyone.”