Stress levels rise as employers flip-flop on RTO policies
Like so many other companies, Activision Blizzard adopted a remote work setup after the pandemic struck. But when it abruptly reversed course earlier this year and started demanding employees return to the office — while also dropping its mandate that they be vaccinated against Covid — a revolt swept through the video game empire already plagued by charges of sexual harassment and union busting.
The decisions led Activision Blizzard’s Workers Alliance to stage a virtual walkout — and yet another head-spinning change in company policy, one that empowered individual offices to set their own vaccine policies.
The case is emblematic of the epidemic of business leaders flip-flopping on their company policies, particularly policies pertaining to RTO, and increasingly causing employees to lose faith in management. This according to the report “2022 State of Remote Work” by Boston-based tech firm Owl Labs and San Diego consultancy Global Workplace Analytics, which was based on a survey of 2,300 full-time workers in the U.S.
“In the endless quest to bring people back to the office, employers are giving workers whiplash with all of their changing policies,” said Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs. “One day, they’re fully remote; the next day, they’re encouraging employees to come back, and the following day they’re mandating it. This creates confusion for employees, leaving them unsure of the expectations around remote or in-office work.”
Flip-flopping can be especially worrisome for employees who already feel their bosses don’t care about them. Gallup found that fewer than half of workers in the U.S. strongly believe their employers care about their well-being. “Employer flip-flopping demonstrates the lack of a cohesive employee engagement and retention plan and only serves to fuel the feeling that employers don’t care,” said Monica Bourgeau, a future of work consultant based in Portland, Oregon.
Andrew Gobran, people operations generalist for the remote work software developer Doist, believes trust becomes compromised not so much because bosses change policies but because of the way such decisions are made and carried out. “Facilitating change successfully requires trust, communication, and a thoughtful consideration of how each change will impact various stakeholders and connect to the company’s values, culture and goals,” he said.
The consensus is that communicating with employees from the get-go can keep them from feeling disrespected. “The best way to avoid flip-flopping all over the place with your work schedule and giving your employees whiplash is to have a team meeting, ask them what they want, get very specific, and then create a schedule per their specifications and stick to it,” said Karim Hachem, vp of e-commerce at the online retailer Sunshine 79.
“Building consensus among employees in a decision that impacts everything in their professional lives by asking them for input before making a ‘flip’ in how business is being conducted will avoid ‘flops’ within the workforce and the exit of your top employees,” explained Damian Birkel, founder and executive director of Professionals in Transition, a nonprofit job service headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “It is far easier to maintain and build a motivated workforce by simply seeking input before making radical changes to their work life.”
The issue underscores why company onboarding procedures are crucial, said Jesse Sacks, director of people, talent and operations at employee experience company Haystack, based in Los Angeles. “It’s during this time when employers set the precedent for how they will communicate with staff, the policies and core values they hold, and what will be expected of team members during their tenure,” he said. “Organizations will undoubtedly augment their corporate policies over time, but they must be consistent with the process in which change occurs.”
Sumona Basu De Graaf, a Phoenix-based organizational psychologist and strategist, has developed the following best practices for making decisions — including those concerning remote work policies — and sticking to them:
Re-establish your values and norms
Companies that are clear about who they are, and who they are not, can lean on those core principles as they make changes to their policies as the context changes. Go back to the basics of what employees should expect from each other and the company so that there is certainty around it. For example: “We expect people to show up for each other, whether that is virtually, hybrid or in person.” Or, “We protect your safety and livelihoods to the best of our ability.”
Be consistent for all
Flexibility is a universal need because it offers a sense of control in one’s life. How it looks may be different based on the person, the job, and the geography in which a person exists. Make it clear that flexibility is something for all to avoid a have/have not dynamic.
Flexibility for a frontline workforce may mean shifts and scheduling. Flexibility for an hourly workforce may also mean requesting additional/less hours based on personal needs and demands. For office workers, flexibility is about primary work location, and the amount of time spent in various spaces to complete their responsibilities. That is why the solutions are different, and leaders must get creative in designing them based on the needs of their people.
Tell employees what you are thinking about and trying. Employees are far more forgiving of change when they know to expect it. Saying “We are going to try this for a quarter and see how it goes” gives your people permission to pilot, try and iterate new ways of working.
Give yourself permission to undecide
Employees recognize that companies are re-evaluating their practices, so make it clear at the outset that you may “undecide” a decision that was made if you receive new information or are experiencing a new context. For example, if the virus mutates yet again and requires more flexibility to work from home to keep people safe, you may make changes to your current policy. Let your employees know that you will be agile in your decision making, but not in your values (For instance: “We will always prioritize your safety as we make decisions”).