In my Monday afternoon AEC Crisis Roundtable, I hear similar stories of confusion, anxiety and dismay. The Covid-19 pandemic has created many challenges, among the most complex being how to bring employees back into the office. One leader, Rich, summarized the problem perfectly when he explained how hard it is to balance the health of employees with the health of the business. 

When the pandemic hit, it was much easier to develop policies because no one had a choice. Everyone had to work at home. Even though many employees struggled at home with limited space, equipment, internet bandwidth and distractions (children, pets, spouses also working at home)most firms made it work successfully. In fact, 2020 was one of the most profitable years that many businesses had ever experienced. 

Your employees really stepped up in 2020, despite the hardships of adjusting to challenging work at home situations. They deserve thanks and appreciation for helping keep our businesses running and proved they can work at home and adjust to crisis conditions.  

However, many leaders want employees back in the office. They feel employees are more productive, are concerned about burnout and mental health issues, and in some cases are starting to see project quality degrading.  

With the tough job market and employees having all the leverage right now, employers are even struggling to come up with hybrid solutions that make everyone happy. As employees are being surveyed, there are a wide variety of concerns – sometimes even opposing viewpoints. This has caused leaders to implement policies and rescind them days later when they receive complaints.  

Here are the ten biggest issues that will help you understand where to put your focus when trying to solve this problem: 

1. THEY DON’T WANT TO GO BACK

Surveys are showing that employees don’t want to go back to the office. Those that do are asking for hybrid and flexible arrangements. After experiencing about 18 months of less structured and more autonomous work environment, they are rethinking their priorities. More time with family and eliminating time consuming commutes has become a key job benefit they now expect. 

2. YOU MAY HAVE TO SEND THEM HOME AGAIN

Now that we are experiencing a third or fourth wave of this pandemic, the future seems uncertain. Do you want to bring everyone back only to send them back home? This is a valid concern considering what is happening now. How do you write a work policy that benefits both employees and employers going forward?

3. VACCINATED VERSUS NON VACCINATED EMPLOYEES

Most firms are asking employees about their vaccination status and finding that 10 to 40 percent of employees are not vaccinated. This is causing huge divisions between employees with vaccinated people blaming unvaccinated people for the rise in cases, and unvaccinated people with strong opinions about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Employers don’t want to ask unvaccinated staff to stay at home as this is perceived as a benefit, but vaccinated employees don’t want to come to the office and work with unvaccinated employees, especially if they don’t know who is and who isn’t vaccinated. Which leads to the next issue…

4. MASKS OR NO MASKS

Many employers are debating whether to require everyone to wear masks in the office. After working at home for months, and then relaxing mask policies, employees are not very keen to work all day in masks. It feels like it defeats the purpose of being in person, especially when paired with social distancing requirements. Some states have even created laws banning employers from “discriminating” against unvaccinated people. This creates a situation where you can’t require unvaccinated employees to wear masks and not require vaccinated employees to wear them. 

5. SAFE WORKING ENVIRONMENT

The above two issues have made it really difficult to guarantee a safe working environment for all of their employees. Add to this the challenges around onsite client meetings, site visits, field work and other project-related travel and it is no wonder there are no easy answers. In some states, employers can be held responsible if employees develop Covid-19 after being in the office. This has led to many firms continuing to have employees working at home and delaying the inevitable return. 

6. REQUIRING VACCINES

There have been some employers that are requiring employees to be vaccinated to come into the office but are concerned about asking for proof or treating some employees differently. For the most part, this is only being done with employees that face the public or deal with patients such as healthcare. This may become demanded more by all employers in the future if the pandemic starts to limit a business’s ability to operate.

7. EVERYONE IS IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION

Which makes this situation even more complicated. Some employees want to work at the office. They are tired of the distractions and uncomfortable work conditions at home. They want a natural separation between work and home life, finding they were working many more hours when working at home. Others have babies and small kids at home that can’t yet be vaccinated and fear for the safety of their health. There are others that have underlying health conditions and even though they are vaccinated, need to limit their exposure. Others moved further from the office during the pandemic and don’t want to have long commutes. In some cases, they may have been forced to move to get more space for a home office, especially with two adults working at home. 

8. BURNOUT

Many employers are seeing a great deal of burnout from their staff. As noted earlier, many employees have difficult work environments at home and have been working more hours. This has led to an increase in mental health concerns, and lower employee engagement. Combining lack of engagement with burnout and a hot job market with recruiters calling them daily, and employees are considering leaving if they are not already looking.

9. TURNOVER

Is becoming a huge problem at many companies. Employee salaries are going up and fees are not (but they need to). Employees are receiving huge bumps in salary and even signing bonuses to move companies. Employees are being recruited out of the industry into manufacturing or tech companies who are also experiencing the same talent shortage. A great deal of creativity and flexibility are going to be required going forward. It is prudent to assume that every employee is looking and to treat them accordingly. 

10. HYBRID POLICIES

All of these issues above have made developing a hybrid work at home policy almost impossible. One size can’t fit all yet employers don’t want the employees calling all the shots. The hybrid policies need to be clear, with an understanding that they could change at any time. Developing long term work-at-home policies will be critical to recruiting and retention as remote work is now being demanded as a benefit. 

These ten issues are causing a lot of frustration and anxiety for leaders trying to please as many employees as possible and still keep projects running successfully and clients happy. There are no easy answers, but flexibility, appreciation and empathy need to be part of any successful plan. 

When hunting for new employees, it is more important than ever to find employees that fit your firm culture, can work independently if needed, and have the right skills and attitude for success. It does not make sense to hire mediocre employees to work on mediocre or unprofitable projects. Growing at all costs is not always the best strategy. 

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