How to handle the transition back to the office

Companies across South Africa are rapidly demanding a return to work of all employees, often with very little time provided for the transition. And while there is a case to be made from the company’s point of view of getting all hands physically on deck again after the great office exodus of 2020, leaders should be aware of the consequences of a top-down approach, a leadership expert says. 

“The USA and a number of other countries around the world are feeling the effects of the so-called great resignation – the phenomenon whereby vast swathes of employees simply quit their jobs instead of returning to the office. But the socio-economic environment in South Africa means that while some people are indeed quitting, most don’t have the luxury to do so. That does not however mean that return to work mandates at short notice will not negatively impact workplaces here – it will just impact in different ways,” says Advaita Naidoo, MD: Africa at Jack Hammer Global, Africa’s largest executive search firm. 

There are essentially three scenarios awaiting companies following a top-down approach at this stage: losing people, developing a toxic workplace, and failing to attract good people down the line, Naidoo says. 

“A tremendous amount of goodwill was built up during the pandemic, with companies facilitating work-from-home arrangements. The levels of teamwork and pulling together hit impressive highs despite the stress of the pandemic, and unprecedented levels of emotional support and ‘keep in touch’ initiatives ensured the mental wellbeing and cohesion of teams. 

“For more than two years, companies were able to get the job done while employees continued to pull their weight and more from home. So, looking at it from the point of view of the employee who now must return to the office, it is not unreasonable for them to question why it is suddenly again necessary for everyone to be physically at their desks from sunrise until sunset. Adding resentment on top of existing stressors is a sure-fire way to turn the workplace toxic, leading to reduced productivity, absenteeism, loss of motivation and a negative work environment.” 

It is essential for businesses at this juncture to: 

1.     Communicate how the office is going to be a place of purpose going forward (as opposed to employees needing to be there… just because), 

2.    Allow sufficient time for employees to make new arrangements (because circumstances and logistics have changed for many people), 

3.     Consider hybrid options and continue to allow flexibility where possible and appropriate, 

4.     Consult sufficiently and substantially, and 

5.     Continue to provide support services and check-in sessions as was done during the pandemic. 

Naidoo says that companies need to acknowledge that we are facing a period of transition, and that time for adjustment and consultation must be allowed – in the interests of their employees, but also in the interest of the company. 

“In addition to addressing the challenges around motivation for current employees, it is also necessary to consider the company’s ongoing ability to attract talent – many of whom now won’t look twice at a company that doesn’t consider the employee experience and which allows no flexibility. If a company isn’t considering the employee experience, they will not only strain or even fail now, but also in the future.”