There are many reasons why employees may not want to return to the office as we enter this post-pandemic season. They may be wary of public settings after a year of sheltering in place, whether or not they have been vaccinated. They may have discovered they can do all the same work at home—with the same level of productivity they were able to reach in the office, but without the commute. They may be saving money on childcare, leaving them reluctant to increase this expense once again. They may have reassessed their lives during the pandemic and decided to find a new career or a different role. They may simply be tired of upheaval now that they have fallen into a rhythm at home.
Employers can respond to these various reasons in a number of ways. Back in November 2020, PacifiCorp in Portland, Oregon—one of the area’s power companies—tried to bring workers back to the office. The negative incentive was a 10 percent pay cut for those who opted to remain at home. Given the announced change came prior to the vaccine’s release, workers protested and PacifiCorp backed off, but then it announced earlier this year that it would resume the policy on June 1 now that a majority of people in Multnomah County have been vaccinated. PacifiCorp is not forcing employees to return to the office, but it has essentially penalized those who have decided to stay home. Needless to say, this has been a less-than-popular move among workers, although the organization has tried to ease the transition by offering flexible hours and alternative schedules.
This program is one of the more aggressive I have encountered in the aftermath of COVID-19. Among organizations that need to have workers back in the office, some may find such measures are not necessary to encourage their workforce to return. There was already a 2.4 percent resignation rate among workers in March, the highest for that month in twenty years, which suggests employers may have to act gingerly if they want to avoid precipitating more resignations. People often keep undesired jobs in order to pay off debt, and with the money saved during the homebound year of 2020, some are realizing they no longer need to do work they don’t enjoy.
No employer wants to have a business that depends on the threat of debt for retainment, and there will always be workers who simply no longer feel connected to their profession’s industry, regardless of the accommodations of a workplace. Perhaps some of these resignations are inevitable. On the other hand, organizations can make special efforts to catch up with the mood changes of a workforce during the lockdown, examine needs and desires in this remarkably altered work environment, and perhaps accommodate their employees on an individual basis in ways that prevent turnover and cost little to manage.
Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University who specializes in work resignations, wrote this concise description of what such consultations could look like:
A more personalized, listen-first approach is needed. That means having one-on-one conversations with employees about their well-being and about how their jobs can be re-crafted to support their pursuit of happiness and purpose. During these sessions, managers and employees must truly listen to one another to build common ground and allow employees to flourish, thereby driving firm performance in the post-pandemic economy.
Klotz cites a Harvard Business Review article from 2010 that views this process as a form of “job crafting.” There are three components to this reevaluation of an employee’s job: tasks, relationships, and perceptions.
Tasks: Workers may want to alter the scope, intensity, or balance of the different tasks they handle, perhaps spending more time on projects that are more meaningful to them.
Relationships: Employees may want to develop different work relationships with other departments or individual people they value.
Perceptions: Finally, workers may need to reconsider the goals of their work on a personal level, rather than solely adhering to a company mission.
Through conversations, a practical plan, and substantive changes, managers and their reports may find ways to refashion each employee’s role that will instill more meaning in the work, heading off any drastic departures. The time taken to address this process will more than pay off in reducing turnover, and by offering this kind of program to returning staff, employers send the message that they are aware of and sensitive to the massive changes wrought by a year in lockdown.