Last week the organization I work for had a town hall meeting like they do every six months. But this one was different; management spent a lot of time talking about the various challenges we have been facing with the work situation shifting due to the pandemic. Some people are saying it is time to go back to “normal” and return to the office. Others are saying it is too soon and that our environment is not set up to protect the employee. There are valid points to be made on all sides of the issue. Inviting everyone to join the discussion is a good sign.
Given that there are a lot of people talking and writing about this topic, I think it is a good idea for managers and business leaders to stop and pay attention. If management truly listens to what their employees are trying to say it will build a trust that is needed right now. So what are the employees saying? What can management learn from these conversations?
What employees are saying
In our virtual town hall meeting, we used a tool called Slido to allow people to submit questions and then use the thumbs up to show how many people have the same question. The question that immediately rose to the top of the list was “has there been any thought to allowing us to work from home after the crisis is over?”
The second but related question was, “my kid’s school will be online only until at least January. Can we work from home or have alternate work agreements?”
Pre-crisis, most of the people were I work did not telework. Leadership had the mindset that if they cannot see you then you must not be working. I am not making this up, the leader speaking said those exact words.
The question seems simple on the face of it but there were very different reasons behind the questions. This is what people were really saying when you dig into it:
- People are afraid to come back due to personal health issues
- Family members in the home are high risk
- Office space is crowded and cubicles are very close to each other
- No school or daycare is available for their children
- People feel like they are more productive at home
- The cost of commuting is much more obvious now
- Working from how allows for better work/life balance
These are just the most common, I could go on but I won’t. Some people have what we call mission-critical jobs. They cannot work from home but they are concerned about what happens when all of us come back and the office becomes crowded again.
To be fair, our management did say they are open to more flexible work arrangements based on job responsibilities. Supervisors are empowered to make decisions based on what job functions the employee has, access to resources from home, and employee performance. However, I did think the answer was a bit glib and left a lot of details unanswered.
What management can learn
If managers want to truly learn from what people are saying they will realize that the biggest concern many people have is safety. The first three things on the list above can be thought of as a safety issue. Employees are not sure the crowded office environment is healthy. We all see news items that say X place opened up and now a lot of people are sick. People don’t want to feel that they have to come back to an unsafe workplace when there is not a valid business reason to do so.
The second lesson to learn is that employees need to balance their personal and professional life. While I don’t have children, I completely understand that my coworker does. She cannot leave her 6-year-old at home. There is no daycare available and school is online only.
If she does not come back when the others do, she believes her career will be harmed. Whether that is true or not doesn’t matter, that is the perception. I would not bother to mention it if just one person had this feeling, but she is not alone. This speaks to a major lack of trust between employees and management.
Lastly, a subcategory to work/life balance is listening to what your employees are saying about what it is like to be in the office. I can only speak for myself, but I have been saving over $500 a month not having to pay commuting costs. Working in the city is expensive, but we all do it because that is where the jobs are. Before there was no choice but that is not true anymore is it?
Most of us have proved we can be equally if not more productive at home. The reason so many of us are more productive is that we have fewer distractions at home. This goes back to the crowded office, the noise, and the constant distractions. Okay, that one may have been mine; I sit near the break room and hear people and chatter all day long.
If managers want to build trust with their employees they need to listen and provide a real answer to employee concerns. Giving a glib answer of “we are open to change” is not enough. It would good to give a plan for just one of the questions. If you listen, your employees have some great ideas to offer.