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Putting up the ‘Batman Signal’ won’t attract staff in new era. Instead, try meaningful work and recognition

September 30, 2022
By Evert Akkerman

Photo: Adobe Stock

A few months into the pandemic, the first in a string of articles predicting “the great resignation” appeared. One of the key factors in these expected departures was that people, having experienced the joy of working with their own coffee machine and fridge close by, wouldn’t want to return to the office and spend hours in traffic. While there is certainly truth to this sentiment, there are other factors at play as well.

As organizations and employees settled — senior management grudgingly, employees happily — into WFH (working from home) or WFA (working from anywhere), the doom and gloom scenarios that had been so vividly painted didn’t play out. The realization sank in that people can be productive working remotely, and they weren’t mainlining margaritas at 11 a.m., and that competent managers weren’t losing control. (Incompetent managers didn’t lose control either – they didn’t have it to begin with).

The bulk of employees were adults who didn’t take dad to Niagara Falls on company time and didn’t need constant monitoring to get the work done.

From a global perspective, the key issue was the sudden transition when the pandemic started. Change always creates unrest, and a change that would have occurred organically over five years was force-fit into five weeks. That’s what caused the pain.


Zoom interviews

In the fall of 2020, I conducted Zoom interviews with the employees of a midsize client to obtain their feedback on WFH and productivity. Results: 15 percent would like to work from home all the time, and 50 percent indicated that a hybrid situation would be great. These respondents (about two-thirds of the peloton) felt they delivered better work away from the office all week or part of the week. Feedback included:

  • “We gained significant efficiencies. Connectivity is an issue, but not project delivery.”
  • “On Zoom, people are more efficient in communicating. And they are never late.”
  • “I get more done because there are fewer interruptions. No stop-and-chat.”
  • “WFH has helped me. It’s a lot less stressful as I control my workload.”

Resistance to recall

Let’s look at some numbers. At one of the Big Five banks, a not-for-public-consumption survey in 2021 showed that only three percent of employees wanted to return to work, while a whopping 87 per cent wanted “0 to 1 days a week at the office.” Other surveys showed similar resistance to recall. But what did this mean — people didn’t want to return to the office, or they didn’t want to return to their boss?

Gallup surveys in the past several years suggest that some 65 percent of employees in North America are not engaged to actively disengaged. Another finding by Gallup is that 82 per cent of managers are miscast in their roles, which is likely one of the key factors in disengagement. Employees who were either switched to working from home or laid off suddenly experienced the benefits of not being stuck in traffic, not being interrupted constantly, not having to listen to colleagues’ private calls, and not having to face that awful team lead in that dreary work environment.

Why would anyone choose to stay in a job they don’t like, travel to a location they don’t like, put up with a pay rate they don’t like, and work for one of those four-out-of-five managers who have no business being in management?

Well, there’s force of habit, and there’s fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator

As every politician, public health official, marketing expert, and meteorologist knows, fear is the most powerful motivator behind human behaviour. People clung to these jobs because they had mortgages, car payments, and hydro bills. Plus, quitting and finding something new is scary. Like a bad marriage, a soured employment relationship offers the comfort of familiarity.

What the pandemic did was force people to experience the difference. The majority of employees working remotely don’t want to go back to full-time or part-time on-site, and many of those who were laid off found jobs they liked better, transitioned to a different sector, went back to school, or finally fulfilled their dream of becoming self-employed.

When laid-off workers received a summons to return to their old jobs, they said, “Oh, first you couldn’t get rid of me fast enough, and now you want me back? Thanks, but no thanks.”

This is the dynamic behind the huge shortages that many sectors are experiencing, including manufacturing, hospitality, retail, and baggage handling.

As an example of transitioning, my hair stylist used to ply her trade at seniors’ residences until the lockdowns locked her out. It so happened that her husband had a landscaping business, and she started helping him by trimming hedges and shrubs. Whenever she was moved to a different site and her husband resumed the trimming, his clients complained that it wasn’t as good.

Just beaming up a Batman signal for employees won’t do.

And returning to pre-pandemic presenteeism, five days a week? A waste of resources. Employers will have to make a real effort to attract, re-attract, and retain people. The answer lies in meaningful work and meaningful recognition.

Evert Akkerman is an HR professional based out of Newmarket, Ont., founder of XNL HR, and partner at executive search firm Crossings People. He can be reached at info@xnlhr.com and evert.akkerman@crossings-people.com.

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