Many managers are caught between a rock and a hard place in the “return-to-work” challenge, pressured to bring people back but still facing resistance from those who now prefer to work from home.
Mandating back-to-work is one thing. Engaging workers is quite another. Nobody can force people to want to be at the office. Many will begrudgingly be in attendance, but on some level will be “quiet quitting” – putting in the minimum effort required to keep their job.
I’ve previously written about how leaders need to prioritize connection, care, and empathy like never before. But what does that really look like? What’s the secret to rallying the troops so that they want to come back to work? There’s no simple answer, but there are ways for a leader to make coming back more worthwhile.
Big, formal initiatives are not necessarily the way to go. Rather, it’s the sum of many smaller, informal, day-to-day conversations and behaviours that can spark more engagement.
First, if your people are commuting to work and then largely spending most of their days isolated at their computers without meaningfully connection with you and others, then no wonder they want to stay at home. With burnout so increasingly prevalent, arguments of convenience and productivity in the work-from-home model are that much more compelling.
But are convenience and pay all that people want from work? The exchange of time, skill and effort for money? Many will say yes. That transaction suits them fine. But there are many others for whom that transactional exchange isn’t enough. Over the years, I’ve coached hundreds of people seeking more from their work experiences.
The “more” factor
What is that “more” factor that can make work more meaningful, attractive and worth extra effort? This is the question every leader needs to tackle – in both virtual and in-person contexts. The answers may be unique to the context, but there are some commonalities.
People want to know that they matter and their contribution makes a difference - that they belong to a community, that they are appreciated and that their leaders care about their careers. They want to feel supported and related to as a person and not just a “resource.” Career-minded folks are continually thinking about their career path, not just the current job.
Meeting these needs happens over time – in continuing conversations and behaviours, rather than at any one-off cookie-cutter, rah-rah event.
Leaders already doing this well are talking to their people regularly and encouraging more collaboration. They are getting to know their people at a human level and revealing more of their own authentic self, too. It’s okay to share your latest puppy anecdotes at work or some other personal glimpse into who you are as whole person, not just your position and title persona.
There are many small moves that can boost engagement, relationships and opportunities for connection. The spirit of your approach should be to create a dynamic that sparks more incentive to come to the office rather than penalize those who do not.
Here are a few examples.
- Be a leader that is seen, available and approachable. One of my clients makes a point of daily walks around the office to connect and say hello to his staff. Those brief touchpoints prompted good conversations, better relationships, more trust and a sense of positive connection.
- Don’t wait for Thanksgiving or performance reviews to notice and appreciate people. Give thanks meaningfully. Do it regularly. One of my clients has a ritual of acknowledging good work at the end of a week in addition to the in-the-moment opportunities to do so.
- Encourage activities that foster belonging and community – for example, in-office celebrations for birthdays, holidays or impromptu “Thank Goodness it’s Thursday” informal gatherings for whoever is around and wants to join. (Don’t mandate, just invite.)
- Incorporate team connection activities in meetings. For example, short icebreakers such as ‘What is one thing we don’t yet know about you?’ Or “let’s all cite one or two wins from the week.” Inject some fun.
- Make career conversations more fluid and not just for scheduled performance reviews and formal conversations. For example, “Hey, I saw a course that might be of interest to you,” or “That project might give you some stretch opportunities that you might like - want to try?”
- Respect boundaries off-hours. Sure, write the e-mail, just don’t send it late in the evening or on the weekend unless it’s urgent.
While much of this can be adapted to the virtual or hybrid context - in-person connection offers more fluidity, and opportunity for individualized connection. You won’t win over everyone, but over time more will appreciate the currently hidden rewards of connecting in person.
Remember, it is easy for someone to leave a job or hold back their best effort when it is just transactional. It’s harder to do so with a leader who cares and invests in them and their career. And even harder when there is a supportive team around them. Tiny moves add up and can make people’s days (and commute) feel worthwhile.
Eileen Chadnick PCC, of Big Cheese Coaching, works with leaders (emerging to experienced), and organizations, on navigating, leading and flourishing in times of flux, opportunity and challenge. She is the author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of Crazy Busy.