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How to retain your employees during office re-openings

The pandemic has caused people to rethink where they are in their careers, and whether the time is ripe for them to move on and change how they work and where they work from. 


With return-to-office looming, many are anxious about what they are returning to. Most employees are expecting to return-to-office in a hybrid fashion. (pooiekoo/Adobe Stock)

As lockdowns lift, most Canadian employers are on the brink of initiating return-to-office protocols amid fears of what’s being monikered as “The Great Resignation” — a global trend birthed by the COVID-19 pandemic that’s poised to see millions of employees switching or quitting their jobs. 

Indeed, findings of a recent poll published by Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks claimed that one in four senior managers are considering resignation. Of the 1,200 respondents, 51 per cent considered “leaving, retiring or downshifting from their current organization or
position.” 

For senior leaders specifically, the relentless pressure to deliver has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president, research and total well-being at LifeWorks in Toronto. 

“In the short term, this increased pressure could lead to behavioural change among senior leadership that trickles down and ultimately causes employee burnout at lower levels. In the longer term, we anticipate seeing a serious risk of turnover among senior leaders,” she said in a media release.

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The pandemic has caused people to rethink where they are in their careers, and whether the time is ripe for them to move on and change how they work and where they work from. 

As an HR leader, I can vouch for the fact that senior and middle managers are mostly the ones to get caught in the crunch of the workload. 

Re-evaluating flexible hours

In hindsight, despite flexible work-from-home (WFH) hours which helped employees with kids, these arrangements changed the flow of a normal, pre-pandemic workday. It didn’t create a natural break between a workday and a non-workday for parents or non-parents. 

The fact that employees could take three hours off in the middle of the day to manage personal situations with their kids’ online schooling, meant they were back at their desks between 8 and 11 p.m. to wrap up their workday. 

As such, not having a traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule brought a separate set of challenges.

Flexible WFH hours for parents ended up impacting those who didn’t have young or adolescent kids at home, as well. 

Even if they kept to a regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, they remained engaged until 11 p.m., as some of their colleagues (perhaps, their bosses) were still on. Employers saw productivity levels shoot up, but employees had no switch-off button. 

What’s become evident is that the way employees experienced COVID-19 and WFH was not homogeneous. Therefore, employers need to spend more time understanding the unique needs of their employees to engage and retain them. 

With return-to-office looming, many are anxious about what they are returning to. Most employees are expecting to return-to-office in a hybrid fashion. 

Employers who don’t offer this may end up with retention and recruitment challenges.

Seeking practical solutions

To help encourage strong employee engagement, some ways organizations can find long-term solutions for employee retention are:

Taking the time to listen: Get feedback from employees through surveys or one-to-one communications. It’s important to understand the lessons learned from the last 18 months of working remotely — what’s worked, what hasn’t. 

Understand that there’s no going back to “the way things were before the pandemic.” Employees want more control and influence over decisions that support organizational bottom lines. Inclusivity, and clear and frequent communications are must-haves.

Fostering a care culture:  Employee mental health is a top priority. Therefore, organizations that offer total health and wellness packages emphasizing the importance of not only physical health and safety, but also emotional well-being and purpose, will have a distinct edge over others, when it comes to retention. 

Consider consistency, fairness:  Determine how important consistency and fairness is versus individualization and meeting individual employee needs. This might be the trickiest to achieve. 

Is it OK for one department to say, “people don’t need to come back to work” while another department says, “I want people to come in five days per week?” It’s critical to understand your employee population and figure out how much needs to be customized and how much needs to be mandated across the board. 

For example, employers may want to stagger back-to-office process because some (not all) members of their workforce may be nervous around lunchroom gatherings or taking the elevator. 

Start with bringing a third of your workforce back into the office. Observe and re-assess before expanding or rescinding the mandate. 

Understand the OH&S component: While committing to workplace health and safety as a primary responsibility, combine the need to be double vaccinated with the flexibility to work from home, if an employer chooses to skip vaccines. 

The assumption is that, eventually, the unvaccinated will choose to join their fully vaccinated colleagues in the office over being sequestered at home. However, with the announcement of mandates for federal employees to vaccinate, increasing numbers of corporations will follow suit. 

Finding the way forward

From an HR perspective, the principles that have always stood, still stand. But the way we need to approach those principles to retain, encourage, and motivate our employees needs to be prioritized differently. 

At the end of the day, all employees want to be well-communicated with. They want challenging work. They want to get fairly compensated for their contributions to the organization. They want to make sure that organizations invest in their growth and development in a way that gives them future opportunities. 

The pandemic has not changed these requirements. But it has changed the way organizations need to modify and implement them to meet the needs of the evolving generations and populations.


Jonathan Hamovitch is senior vice-president of talent management at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. He is a member of the SCNetwork, a Canadian peer-to-peer HR organization. 

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