“Return to normal” has been an optimistic catchphrase at workplaces around the world as managers have tried to set plans for life after the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as the delta and omicron variants, countless scrapped or modified return-to-work plans, and a wave of job-quitting so big it’s been deemed “The Great Resignation” have proved, returning to normal has been anything but.
Reality has shifted the goalposts from “return to normal” to a desire to find a new normal, based on what employees and employers have collectively learned through the past two years of pandemic-impacted life. A recent Glassdoor report revealed that 70% of employees surveyed wanted to split the week between home and office, 26% wanted to work from home full-time and only 4% wanted to fully return to the office.
According to Lynn Isabella, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, companies can’t put the genie back in the bottle. “We’ve turned a corner, and it’s going to be hard to go back to the way things were,” she said. “There are many things people have come to like about remote working, including the reduced commutes that make it easier to balance their professional and personal lives.”
“Our prior routines are scrapped and we have greater exposure to the people who matter most to us – our families. We’re waking up to the trade-offs we made against them before the pandemic,” said Sean Martin, a Darden professor of business administration whose research explores how organizational culture and societal contexts affect leaders and followers. “People are asking: What are my habits going to be going forward? Where do I want to spend my time? People are questioning if their investment of time with a business is worth it.”
Martin suggests businesses would do well to meet employees where they are.
“If a business wants to retain employees, it needs to listen to them and be flexible,” Martin said. “For those that are inflexible and say, ‘Get back to the office,’ that’s defensible if they really believe it’s best for the business. But you have to realize some people may say ‘no.’”
Desmond Dickerson, director of Future of Work Marketing at Microsoft, spoke at Darden’s Leadership Communications Council annual meeting, led by Darden associate professor June West and lecturer Steve Soltis, last fall. He believes the future of the workplace is all about experimentation.
For example, Microsoft is discovering that employees like working at home and are more productive, but are suffering from higher levels of burnout. They’re experimenting to figure out how to refresh people, support their mental health and develop the concept of “regenerative performance.”
Piggybacking the theme of experimentation, Martin offered one prediction about the uncertain future of work:
“It’s going to be a mess, but that’s OK. There’s not a textbook for this,” Martin said. Companies that press people back to the office may lose employees and need to find new hires who are a better fit. Those that try the hybrid workplace will face some logistical nightmares.
“We all have to remember: It’s OK. We have to try stuff. What we can’t sacrifice is that employees believe you have their best interest at heart. People will recognize when you are trying to take care of them.”