Between a Rock and a Workplace: Keeping Your Best People

February 7, 2023 Britney Cole

During the past few weeks, several leading companies have announced they are bringing employees back to the office, either full-time or part-time. It's a complex situation worth examining—especially when it could mean the loss of top performing employees.

Over the past three years, countless people have adjusted to and are comfortable working at home. In some ways, they are more productive than they were in the office. Also, remote job opportunities have been plentiful. If someone wasn't happy, they could easily find another position without ever needing to leave the house for an interview.

Yet, companies have their own motivations for bringing people back to the office. Large organizations have massive real estate holdings. Few buyers are looking to purchase office buildings or truckloads of office furniture. Keeping the lights on is expensive—and you can't just turn them off and let buildings decay.

Communities and cities also have a desire to bring employees back to the workplace. Reduced foot traffic leads to reduced tax revenue and sales for small businesses, many of which support city employees. The absence of these workers leads to fewer jobs in urban areas, speeding an even greater decline.

Meanwhile, all this is happening in the face of a looming recession. Many employees are on edge about whether they should stay or leave. Employers and employees seem at odds, although both have a reasonable point of view. Leaders tend to be stuck in the middle. Even though the situation is complex, leaders must take stock of their teams and do a serious check-in. Otherwise, they risk losing their best.

Start the discussion

Let's say you're a leader and your organization has mandated that people return to the office at least part-time. You are acutely concerned that your best people may leave, especially if they were hired in the last two years as a remote employee. Maybe they've never even been to the office. And now that's suddenly changed—even if it wasn't a condition of their employment.

Your first job as a leader is to open the conversation. Don’t wait for the employee to come to you and don’t be afraid of what you may hear. You might say something like, “This could be a big impact that requires a serious adjustment. Can we talk about it?” Then share your appreciation for them. You could say, “I need you to know how glad I am that you’re here and how much I want you to stay. I would love to find a way to make this work for both you and our team.”

Identify employee concerns

Sometimes organizations haven’t done a good job of explaining why returning to the office is so important. Some issue blanket statements that may not necessarily be true, such as having everyone in the office is better for collaboration or teams, when employees know they have been collaborating and teaming well remotely.

Even so, when people are asked to return to the office, they begin to think about how it will impact them. They may wonder:

  • Where can I find child care or adult care or pet care? Can I afford it?
  • Must I be in the office the same three days every week? Who decides?
  • Who will pick up my kids after school?
  • Do I want to commute again?  Do I need to buy another car?
  • Will I have an office, or must I share? 
  • Will I just be attending the same Zoom meetings in a different place?
  • Do I have to buy new pants?

Make time for employees to share their questions and concerns about how returning to the office might impact them. Uncovering someone’s information and personal concerns may take longer than one conversation. But having the discussion shows that you acknowledge these concerns even if you can’t answer or address them all. You are allowing people to be heard.

Don’t let fear of not knowing all the answers get in the way of having a conversation. Just be honest, say you don’t know, and commit to answering what you can. Avoid filling in the gaps with speculation—this drives uncertainly and can result in an us vs. them mentality with “them” being the team and the company. This ultimately creates a situation that is the opposite of what you want.

Tell people they are valued and you want them to stay

Leaders can be guilty of not expressing how they feel about their people. Research bears this out. Some 80% of senior managers think they praise their people at least once a month, but only 22% of employees agreed with that statement. Yet, praise is powerful. Some 40% of employees would work harder if they received more praise, and 63% of employees who are praised would be unlikely to look for a new job because of it.

As a leader, you shouldn't assume your people know that you value them and consider them a top performer on your team. Tell them! They might be surprised to learn you feel this way.

Bring it to the team

Often, organizations leave it up to managers to interpret hybrid work policies. In this case, you must really think through what coming back to the office means for you and your team. One way to start is to hold a team meeting after you’ve had all the one-on-one conversations about people’s concerns. Ask the team these questions—it will create a shared experience about the change. 

  • What has worked well for you while working remotely?
  • What was difficult while working remotely?
  • How do you feel about coming back to the office?
  • What would be the ideal way for you to work, as we move forward?

The answers to these questions will help you formulate a plan and create more buy-in and support from your team—because it involves them in the change.

Acknowledge remote work isn’t perfect

Let’s face it. Working from home has its challenges. For me, every weekday at 2:45 p.m. is when my kids come off the bus. The dog barks. Help with homework and snacks demands my time. It’s hard for me to take calls then, but it’s not always possible to have that time blocked. Sometimes I get interrupted. Sometimes I’m late to meetings. Sometimes it’s just fine and everyone can manage themselves—until they can’t and Mom has to intervene.

A good exercise is to ask team members to share what they feel was their best day of work. They’ll probably talk about the amazing people, the meaningful work, and their great team. It’s a good reminder that a job is more than just the work environment.

The current situation is comfortable because it’s become familiar, but it's not perfect. Remind your high performers of this. At the same time, let them know you want to accommodate their preferences and needs the best you can—possibly ahead of your own. Let them know you are here to listen, brainstorm ideas, and advocate for resources to support them as the transition to the office occurs. You are all on the same team.

The grass isn’t always greener

Finally, let’s be honest with ourselves—the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.  What we learned from the Great Resignation is that better pay or more flexible work doesn’t always equate to better working conditions, goals, managers, or teams. People who leave companies in search of the perfect job are typically disappointed. I like to say that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s just a different shade—and there are always some brown spots. 

Let the team members you really want to retain know that you see a future for them at your organization and you want to be their champion. Create a development plan. See if you can find other creative ways to engage them, such as sending them to a conference or encouraging them to take a professional development course.

If you are a leader in an organization that wants people to come back to the office, start the discussions, acknowledge concerns of individual team members, address your team as a group, and always make it clear that you want to make it work and will be as flexible as your company allows. These are things you can do and you can control. Then, if some employees simply can’t make an onsite job work for them, be understanding and help them exit gracefully—to another patch of grass.

About the Author

Britney Cole

Britney Cole is Chief Innovation Officer and the Head of the Blanchard Innovation Lab and Experience Center. She creates an atmosphere of excitement and forward-thinking for clients who want to rethink what it truly means to unleash the potential and power in people and organizations for the greater good.

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