There is a song from the Disney movie, Snow White, that goes, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go,” sung by the Seven Dwarves, including Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful and Doc. Which one can you admit to becoming over these past 19 months? 

A lot of people are jumping the lines at the airport to get on a plane for business meetings, so why are there still so many people not returning to work or resisting what I call the “Big Return”? No doubt, we are adjusting to how the pandemic has and continues to shift our world and our thinking. Nomadic life has grown popular – after all, if we don’t know where we are going as humanity, why not pack up, go to different places, and experience new adventures? Futurists, like me, believe that people will return to offices and co-working spaces. It is just a matter of when and what form they will take. It takes the people to create, embody, and support a business’s culture and mission statement. We know that connecting with one another in-person produces key measurable results in the workplace, but the physical location and environment also affects performance and productivity. 

It is up to you to define how work becomes your own “Field of Dreams”. Remember, you are always a part of a team. Each player has to do their part to keep the machine working. People like to work towards personal goals, including improving their lifestyle, living conditions, raising and educating their children, providing for their family, planning recreational time, and investing in their futures. Companies can’t succeed without putting their people first and people are motivated by pursuing their own personal goals before sharing a common goal within a company.    

Just as much as the struggle prevailed to adjust to working at home, it will continue to how to get back to the office.  Although companies and managers can be sensitive to individual circumstances, it is management’s responsibility to keep the company in business and that requires people to show up and work together face to face. They need to make prudent choices, establish guidelines and policies and respect employees’ situations with compassion and understanding. Your company has the responsibility to provide a strong infrastructure to manage, guide and maintain, while providing a safe and secure working environment. However, it is the employees’ responsibility to show up, do the work and choose to be proud of their contribution to the greater whole for the good of the company. Employees should understand the challenges, risks, and repercussions if they choose to not go back to work in the office.  When I was asked to give some thought to the ubiquitous challenge facing Senior Management regarding labor, hybrid working situations, and getting employees back to the office, my first inclination was to revert to my experience in incentive and motivation.  Establishing a recruit, retain, and reward program for employees could result in increased morale and encourage employees to revert to working in the office.

Psychologists will defend that it takes three weeks to change a habit. That is what working at home has become – a habit. It may be more difficult for some than others with children, elder care, and illnesses. From dress codes to happy hour, people have become individualized through separation. Consider a series of training programs, masterminds or group facilitations from professionals. I collaborated this year with 17 other women on a book targeted to help support women in business named “Called to Lead” and we work with companies and departments for professional development from the creative to mindful leadership aspect. Communication always starts at the top and although most franchises work independently, all share a unified culture. As people have changed, so have companies – but working has not changed.  Employees play the most important role in the office, which is participating in their company’s community and culture. This situation is unarguably more productive than working remotely all of the time.  The “Big Return” brings us an opportunity TO CHANGE THE CORPORATE CULTURE. What is the company’s core value?  What does the company support?  What is the mission of the company? 

You want to feel welcomed and proud of your company. You want management to be competent and respectful of your time and abilities. You want to feel like you are cared for and a part of a team. Given this, there comes an opportunity to ask questions that can perhaps assist in the “Big Return”. Every company will have different circumstances related to specific needs, structure, management levels and business operation.  The challenge of launching an effort with the objective to “return, reconnect and rebuild”, leads to the need for creative thinking and brainstorming. Sample questions may include “when was the last company survey?” or “is there data to prove that management is confident and competent with running the business?

Questions need to be asked and more research needs to be done on what exists internally and what sort of outreach was done during the pandemic. How has management been communicating with employees? One of the biggest concerns of management was the lack of connection with employees. Losing face to face opportunities devoids people of non-verbal communication. There is a poignant need to rebuild teams cascading from the top down.     

I asked Ciara Feely, author of Steps to Win  and an expert on sales and customer dynamics what her thoughts were on this topic.  Ciara and I discussed how relationships are the key to achieving positive outcomes. Communication can be both simple and complex.  It is hard to make communication simple.  We all need human connections.  Ciara offered the following:

  • Understand what is important to the team – their why for working
  • How can you/the company support employees to achieve their life goals – outside of work?
  • Help them to identify and see the link between work and achieving these goals
  • Lead by example – and compassion.    Employee’s loyalty increases given the care and empathy a company demonstrates – all for the good of the company success
  • Teach them how to think strategically; what is the most important priorities for both of you
  • Exemplify relationship building
  • Include employees in discussion for new procedures – teach them creative thinking for innovative results
  • Hold them accountable and inspire them to hold themselves accountable
  • Help them to discover their magic.

Ciara shared that salespeople need to feel a sense of purpose and see a clear path for growth within the company. That doesn’t necessarily mean a promotion. Growth can mean advancing their skills or achieving personal goals. Growth is achieved by having an inspiring leader that they can learn from and grow with. 

Do leaders know what their leadership style is and if it’s attracting and retaining the talent they need?

She shared a story of Dan who was a top performer on the sales team.  He decided to leave his position.  Not because of the money.  He left because the company’s mindset was too transactional.  

There was no connection.

No Clear Vision.

No Purpose.

He also hadn’t spoken with his boss in 3 weeks.

Prepare for the Big Return

Define clear policies of what is expected from your employees. Maybe that is a proof of vaccination requirement for all employees by a designated date, or a three day “in the office” minimum immediately (unless extenuating circumstances excused by management.) As time goes on, it could change to four days in the office, and so on. 

It is management’s responsibility to keep the business operationally solvent and report to the Board, franchise owners, and employees. People need strong leadership to help them during this period of indecision. While there are many exceptions, there is only one rule – and that rule is that people need to return to work. However, it is the company’s concern to provide a safe and secure environment for employees when they are in a physical office environment.

Communication is Key

The number one requirement to keep a company moving forward together is communication from senior management. Employees need consistency, commitment, and cohesiveness to keep them connected. In times of uncertainty, they need even more communication – not less. You may consider launching a communication plan from management – be authentic, forge a human connection, instill a sense of urgency to get back to business. There are many ways to do this such as conducting an employee survey, having weekly updates or PSA’s, or interviewing senior management employees on the news of the week, featuring and recognizing key employees. You could even create a vehicle for anonymous questions and comments, or form an internal campaign to encourage connections amongst workers globally. Create opportunities to involve employees’ ideas for new initiatives to return to the workplace.

Keeping your employees feeling heard is all a part of that communication. Create opportunities to involve employees’ ideas for new initiatives to return to the workplace. Recognize and accept the diverse feelings people have about returning to work. Don’t be afraid to speak about it or offer coaching. Facilitate management training programs and educate them on the statistics of returning to work in-person, such as loyalty, productivity, innovation, team building.

Forward thinking and considering, or even implementing employee led initiatives and ideas open gateways to communication, growth, and innovation. For those who understand the intrinsic value of incentive and motivation programs, returning to work is akin to an incentive program.  Senior management should give employees attention with the focus of working together again for the success and good of the company.  Money is not the key motivator to employee retention – recognition and communication is.   

What I know for sure is that rebuilding our society, our cities, our economy relies on people coming together again. Local economies depend on businesses to sustain themselves. People need people. Over 80% of communication is non-verbal. It is sensed by being in someone’s physical presence, and when we are in person with one another, dynamics and interactions are accelerated.      

Whatever your situation, mapping out a direction of return for all employees and developing a collaborative culture of creativity is the beginning to defining what is next to come. I believe that what’s next will be your best chapter yet!