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Why employees do not want to go back to the office

Workplaces may want to open full-time, but after two years away, employees have settled into work-from-home routines that they value

Well-being and flexibility are now core concerns for employees
Well-being and flexibility are now core concerns for employees (iStockphoto)

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More cars clogging the highways during commute hours, accelerated plans to welcome employees back to offices, and a push to reopen schools are all signs that the imminent return to the workplace is inevitable in the near future. Two long years after the coronavirus pandemic completely upturned the way we work and live, more offices and work sites are beginning to reopen their doors to the workforce. Whether employees return to their workplaces full-time, on a hybrid schedule, or not at all will depend on various factors, and planning for reopening during a still-unfolding pandemic is new and uncertain territory for employers and employees alike.

Amid all of the upheaval brought by the pandemic, one thing has become clear: many people have established routines and lifestyle changes that they now prize in their work from home life, whether that’s increased productivity, regular exercise, or spending time with family. So, not surprisingly, they feel like they would be giving up a lot to go back to work.

Also read: How to manage the changing dynamic of workplace stress

Well-being and flexibility are now core concerns for employees as they evaluate the benefits of returning to the workplace. These represent key opportunities for organisations to support mental health and well-being in the wake of the workforce returning to the workplace. And this return to the post-pandemic new normal is not a simple overnight switch from remote to on-site presence.

A lot has changed and continues to evolve in the workplace over the last two years– customer needs, business priorities, product offerings, technology and the impact on customer and employee experience. Organisations need to adopt enduring changes to their operating models to ensure that all of their employees can work in inclusive environments that support their best work for their customers.

Going back to the physical workspace may drive engagement and effectiveness for some employees while hindering it in others. Employers need to be sensitive to this and consciously design strategies that account for the needs of their diverse workforces. The return-to-work plan for employees would be more successful and well-formed if organisations first understand employees’ immediate needs and concerns as they return.

Launching a pulse survey to capture feedback and give people an opportunity to voice their worries could go a long way toward making them feel heard, especially since many felt disconnected as they worked virtually for the longest time ever. Also, sharing a summary of these results and information about how the organisation will address major themes reported in the survey would set the right tone and send the right message to employees. It would make them feel heard, acknowledged and cared for by the organisation,.

There’s never been a better time to start for companies that don’t already offer dedicated mental health benefits or benefits tailored to working parents, family caregivers, and commuters. Employee wellness programs focussing on mental health and its impact on engagement and productivity of self and teams will increasingly gain traction, as will access to dedicated helplines and mental health professionals as employees battle stress, anxiety, depression and burn-out at the workplace.

With all of the stressors that employees have been experiencing, providing support through policy decisions, can make a big difference in their ability to return to and thrive in the workplace.After a year of cancelled vacations and longer hours at work, many employees need a break, even if pandemic travel restrictions remain in certain parts of the world.

Encouraging employees to schedule time off and formulating policies in advance around how paid time off (PTO) requests can be managed to minimise disruption are great ways for organisations to show they care and build a culture of work-life balance and concern for employee well-being.

Also read: Why the great return to office is more challenging than expected

Launching digital solutions through wearables and digital biomarker apps for collecting physiological data that could predict the mental health and well-being of the workforce is an idea whose time has come. For example, progressive organisations are exploring how an employee can use their smartphone to self-report their mood or record their voice as a means to gauge their emotional state or use their smartwatch to track their heart rate, skin temperature, and electrodermal activity to assess their well-being, without compromising on privacy, of course.

Building an inclusive mental health space at work is not a luxury anymore but a necessity. The employees’ overall satisfaction and mental health affect the organisation’s culture and growth. This pandemic has shown how dependent we all are on one another.

Our health depends on the choices of many individuals. While leaders craft re-entry plans for their teams into the organisation, it’s important to keep the psychological health of employees at the top of their minds. Not only will helping them deal with stress and anxiety affect the company’s bottom line, but it’s simply the right thing to do.

The author is a senior vice president, human resources, with Kotak Life.

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