Future of Work
‘It won’t change overnight:’ Workers push back as return-to-office plans roll out
By Brett Bundale
Ian McGrath has made it clear to his bosses: If the company forces staff to return to the office, he’ll tender his resignation.
The Halifax-area tech worker says he’s thriving working from home. His productivity has soared, his last annual review exceeded expectations and he’s now one of the company’s top performers.
“I’ve also achieved a much better work-life balance,” McGrath said. “I’m healthier, happier and more productive.”
Calling workers back
Businesses are issuing return-to-office plans across the country, calling white-collar workers back to their cubicles after two years of working from home.
As pandemic restrictions are lifted and case numbers ease, some companies want workers back in the office five days a week. On the other side of the spectrum, others are vacating pricey leases in prime downtown areas and asking employees to work remotely for good.
Many others are adopting a hybrid model, varying from a flexible come-when-you-want approach to mandating specific days workers must report to the office for duty.
Yet after more than two years of Zoom calls and Slack chats from home, wearing comfy “soft” pants and having more time for kids or exercise or reading, employees may be resistant to returning to the office.
“Some employers just want to flip a switch and turn back time to how things were,” said Catherine Connelly, human resources and management professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business.
“It’s wishful thinking,” she said. “If you look at any other past pandemic … behaviours just did not reset to how things were.”
A return to the office doesn’t affect all workers equally, said Connelly, also Canada Research Chair in organizational behaviour.
Multiple factors can influence how employees respond to the revival of office life, from the comfort of their home working conditions and personality type to their workplace culture and office set up.
“If you’ve got a nice big office with a door that closes and maybe a dedicated parking space, that’s very different than someone being asked to work from a noisy cubicle with a lot of interruptions,” she said.
The key to a successful return-to-office plan is flexibility and taking it slow, experts say.
If workers feel like they are being coerced into returning to the office, they’ll push back.
“If people perceive it as control being taken away from them, you’re going to get resistance,” said Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks.
“Two years is a long time for habits to become ingrained and people don’t like change,” she said. “It won’t change overnight.”
Perks and incentives
Some tech companies, previously known for workplace perks such as free office fitness classes and nap rooms, are again turning to incentives to help lure workers back to the office.
ServiceNow Canada, an enterprise software company with offices in Montreal and Toronto and plans to open a Calgary location soon, is hoping to entice employees with free meals and team-building events.
“We’re starting to put on some events to say, ‘We’re here, come on down and have some fun,'” said Marc LeCuyer, vice-president and general manager of ServiceNow Canada.
The tech company has held a Taco Tuesday lunch, a pop-up from a local bakery and a pizza making event, he said.
“We want to get back to this mindset where human connection is valuable and healthy,” Lecuyer said. “We want to set the stage for a return to the office in a very positive way.”
The company doesn’t plan to mandate a return to the office, he said.
“We’re providing people with choice,” Lecuyer said. “If you’re working for an employer who is forcing you to do something that you don’t want to do, there’s no path to positive experience.”
The desire to attract employees back to offices with perks such as free food has been a boon for startups like Hungerhub, a corporate catering tech platform that delivers lunches to workplaces from local restaurants.
Sari Abdo, co-founder and CEO of the Toronto-based startup, said the corporate lunch program eases some of the burden of returning to an office.
“I think we’re seeing a carrot-and-stick approach to getting employees back in the office and this is a carrot,” he said. “Companies are saying, ‘Don’t worry about food, don’t worry about meal planning, just come on in.'”
Employers have right to call workers back: Lawyer
While a free lunch is a nice gesture, companies do have the right to call workers back into the office — no incentive required, said employment lawyer Hermie Abraham.
“This is the employer’s legal right and decision as to how they wish to implement return-to-work plans,” she said. “People may feel like they should have the right to continue working from home but unless there’s a human rights consideration, they don’t.”
Many workers going into the office for the first time in years are groaning about a lengthy commute, expensive parking and the soaring cost of lunch.
But from a legal standpoint, Abraham said it’s largely “too bad, so sad.”
“You may have realized gains during COVID because you didn’t have to pay for those things, but that’s not your employer’s problem,” she said. “This is the job you signed up for when you originally were hired.”
Still, Abraham said a best practice would be to allow a gradual return to the office — particularly given the current red hot labour market.
“There is going to be a war for talent in some positions and the more accommodating and flexible you are as an employer, the greater chances that you’ll win.”
Halifax-area tech worker Ian McGrath said he’s aware of the low unemployment rate and competition for talent in many industries, including his.
“I know what the market looks like right now,” he said. “I know that I could leave my job for somewhere else and make more money.”
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