Dr. Talia Varley holds a master of public health from Harvard University and MD from McMaster University. Dr. Seema Parmar holds a PhD in international public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They are leaders in advisory services at Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical centre where physicians, wellness experts and management consultants help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.
It’s become provocative to say, but many employees who work remotely may be better off spending more time in the office. While some thrive in their home office, we see more and more who don’t. And those who struggle – including employees who are new, who require training and apprenticing, or who are burnt out or can’t disconnect – often remain silent regarding the challenges they face.
In the absence of face-to-face meetings and informal discussions over water coolers, managers, corporate leaders and HR departments may not recognize signs of employees’ distress or the need for a thoughtful return-to-office plan. In such cases, companies risk losing employees, culture, loyalty and opportunities for innovation and growth.
Managers need to know their employees personally, and how they typically work, to better identify unusual patterns and behaviours that might indicate distress. Do employees require regular check-ins? Do they like to connect in the morning? Do they have daily routines that affect work schedules? Do they like to collaborate or work independently?
Struggling employees who work remotely also exhibit behaviours such as disengagement, turning off video in meetings, missing deadlines and becoming less present in discussions. Some may lack skills for aspects of remote work or their broader role. Some may feel demotivated and detached from their teams, like they don’t fit in. All are potential signs that an employee may benefit from more time in the office.
Start with psychological safety
Return-to-office discussions are less challenging in organizations where employees feel psychologically safe – where they are comfortable discussing issues in an open, trusting and consequence-free manner.
How do leaders model and develop psychological safety? It takes time, but showing vulnerability and humility are a good start. Regularly ask how each person is doing and, where appropriate, share personal challenges and welcome others to do the same. If you aren’t comfortable revealing your struggles, employees won’t be either.
Be genuine, curious and kind when listening to employees. Show gratitude. Today, appreciation for a job well done, extra effort and individual initiative are often overlooked. View errors as an opportunity to teach rather than judge. When psychological safety is present, discussions with remote workers are far more likely to lead to a positive result.
Prioritize the employee
The conversation about return to office, full or part time, needs to be shaped around an individual’s business case – not a corporate business case.
Employees benefit in many ways from being in the office. Office employees are visible and part of the conversation. They develop relationships and see, up close, how innovation and value creation occur. They benefit from spontaneous connections – quick and meaningful interactions that nurture relationships and problem solving. They learn through observation about how leaders act and interact, and they are available for apprenticeship and mentorship opportunities. All can support skill development, career advancement and intellectual stimulation in ways that are often not achieved remotely.
Remote employees need to hear this individual narrative along with the employer’s commitment to their needs and growth potential when transitioning to more time in the office. It’s important to note that for employees who may have mental health challenges, a sudden return to office may worsen their situation. A staggered or flexible return or supports such as professional counselling or peer support may be necessary.
Employee appetite for returning to the office increases after they return if their experiences are enjoyable and beneficial. To help ensure that is the case, companies need to support individual narratives with real-world experiences. A company that extols the benefits of personal relationships, innovation and professional development can’t isolate employees in small cubicles, lock leaders behind closed doors or restrict employees from opportunities for collaboration and creativity.
- Position return to office as a collaboration: Express to the employee “we will do this together.”
- Accept imperfection: Be transparent around what companies don’t know but will learn.
- Prioritize safety: Note the protocols that remain in place to increase certainty and confidence.
- Be flexible, as work norms change when in-person: For instance, virtual meetings don’t work as well in open-concept offices.
Asking an employee to return to the office can have many consequences, including a potential exit. However, it also offers immense opportunity to empower employees to find purpose and connection, and to feel appreciated and valued. Today, as the war for talent continues, companies tilt the scales to mutual success when they balance the employee’s unique needs with the organization’s long-term vision. While this intentional, thoughtful process may take time and effort, the benefits are tangible, shared and inspiring.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.