Spring’s continued lifting of pandemic restrictions is a breath of fresh air, especially for those eager to return to the office. However, that comeback is likely to look different from pre-COVID times going forward. While work from home policies can incite feelings of isolation, burnout and stress, they’ve also changed traditional views around how, when and where people can work. It’s opened the door to endless new ways to structure the workweek, but also challenged leaders in how to support staff in new environments.
“Every company and each individual are different. There is no cookie cutter solution to all of this,” says Terri Davis, President and CEO at ProFound Talent. “We’re seeing every version of work models between traditional, remote, hybrid and flexible. It’s going to change with time as people continue to see what’s working for them using trial and error.”
Corporate leaders are dealing with staff members with differing attitudes as businesses move forward. “There have been feelings of isolation for people who absolutely do not want to work from home and would rather be in the office full-time,” says Davis. “Others don’t want to lose that ability to work from home. Some individuals coming back to work will have vulnerabilities in their own medical needs. We have both ends of the spectrum.”
Stavros Demetriou, Partner, People and Change Advisory Services, KPMG LLP, says approaches vary largely based on industry and location. For instance, professional services or technology companies requiring less in-person interaction may continue to work in largely remote or hybrid models. “That flexibility has continued where people are going into the office once or twice each week but in some industries, it’s still remote first and then some in-person interaction.”
Meanwhile at the office, some organizations continue to enforce their own policies around masking or proof of vaccines, but they’re easing off. Still, returning to the office environment remains an adjustment for many. “It’s reasonable to see hesitation for some people,” says Demetriou.
Jason Dent, Founder and Principal Consultant at JADA Solutions, says calls to his health, safety and environmental services agency have moved away from the more physical aspects of office safety to HR and policy solutions that ease people’s minds. For instance, returning employees are more sensitive to things like air quality in the office after two years of working in their homes where relative humidity differs.
“These requests are often based around having people recognize there’s not an air quality problem, it’s just a different environment,” says Dent. “When people come back into the office and are more sensitive to experiencing a dry throat or little cough, it’s typically not the case of getting sick, it’s just getting used to being back in that environment.”
Leaders are working to adapt to constant change while juggling differing perspectives. “There are those who still want to wear a mask for protection and others who are hoping to move past wearing them,” says Dent. “Many employers are working on how to best protect their employees while avoiding a political and polarizing environment within the office or having either side feel vilified.”
In all of this, Canadians have mixed views on how they want to see work structures evolve. While the last two years have shown people can be effective working remotely, KPMG research found feelings of satisfaction and productivity in the work-from-home model are tapering off from where they were in the early days of pandemic lockdown.
A recent KPMG Canada survey of over 2,000 respondents showed more than three in five Canadians want to return to the office, describing “virtual fatigue, mental health and social withdrawal” as key challenges. However, many remain satisfied with current virtual remote work environments. Differing stances have resulted in more hybrid work models, an environment 71 per cent of respondents prefer.
Interestingly, over 80 per cent of people surveyed had concerns that their leaders may not be ready to manage new models with a mix of staff working in and out of office. “Organizations need to create the right infrastructures that enable these hybrid environments, but they also need to train up their managers and leaders on how to lead in this hybrid environment that really no one has done before,” says Demetriou.
As leaders navigate uncharted waters, they’re adapting on the go. “It’s about recognizing and rewarding people’s contributions in a timely and fair way wherever they’re working from,” says Demetriou.
Doing so requires a shift in how leaders measure productivity. “At some points, leaders are challenged between leading with accountability then shifting back to their old paradigm of managing with time,” says Davis. “This tends to happen when they are trying to connect with an employee and that employee is not readily available to connect. It’s an interesting dynamic and change for leaders, to which they are navigating.”
Companies are also trying to find a balance between flexible and hybrid work models with some mandating time in the office at the corporate level while others are leaving it to their departments to plan around what works for their team. “When it becomes a team-driven consensus around which days the team is coming in, at what frequency and how they can best work productively together, that can really work well,” says Davis.
Hybrid structures also mean leaders are challenged to keep everyone connected. “We’re seeing companies create new roles that are specific to ensuring engagement with a remote work force, for example a ‘director of remote engagement,’” says Davis. “It’s all about keeping everyone engaged and connected if they are continuing to work remotely.”
Another new development sees businesses gathering input from their staff on an ongoing basis, such as through weekly check-in reviews. “This gives employers a sense of how staff are dealing with everything, and also how they’re reconnecting,” says Demetriou. “It’s staying on top of the pulse of what your people need.”
Leaders are also learning new ways to leverage technology to support their teams who have moved from a predominantly office environment, to primarily virtual and now a mix of both. “We’re now looking to technologies that help teams where some people are working in the office and others are working remotely, but they must promote connectivity and engagement,” says Demetriou.
Dent adds that the accelerated adoption of technology is helping companies adjust as things continue to change. “For us, it is keeping our culture moving forward in the right direction, and we hear that a lot with the organizations we work with,” he says. “These tools will help keep the communication alive while allowing people to work remotely and to protect themselves and stay healthy where needed.”
When it comes to dealing with those issues exacerbated during the pandemic, including stress, anxiety, depression and substance use, most businesses Dent works with continue to have third-party support systems in place that provide counseling services and other resources to staff as needed. “Prior to the pandemic, maybe one or two staff members were using them,” he says. “Right now, we’re seeing about 50 per cent of our staff using them. It’s a big jump in use and they’re getting more traction in the office. People are talking about them more and using them when they feel they need to.”
It can bring understanding on all sides to remember there is no history to draw upon as businesses have, and will continue to, adapt and evolve. “Organizations need to communicate with employees, share what they are learning through these new times and ask for the grace of their employees as both learn to work in this changing world,” says Davis.