How to identify struggling remote workers, and create a win-win for their return to office
dr Talia Varley has a Masters of Public Health from Harvard University and an MD from McMaster University. dr Seema Parmar holds a PhD in International Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They lead the consulting services of Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical center where physicians, wellness professionals and business consultants help companies improve employee health and manage business risk.
It has become provocative to say that many employees working remotely may be better off spending more time in the office. While some are thriving in their home office, we are seeing more and more who are not. And those who are struggling — including new hires who need training and education, are burned out, or can’t switch off — are often silent about the challenges they face.
In the absence of face-to-face meetings and informal discussions about water coolers, managers, company directors, and human resource departments may fail to see signs of employee distress or the need for a thoughtful return-to-office plan. In such cases, companies risk losing people, culture, loyalty and opportunities for innovation and growth.
Managers need to know their employees personally and how they typically work to better spot unusual patterns and behaviors that could indicate stress. Do employees have to check in regularly? Do you like to have contact in the morning? Do they have daily routines that affect working hours? Do you like working together or do you work independently?
Employees who are struggling and working remotely also exhibit behaviors such as withdrawing, turning off video in meetings, missing deadlines and being less present in discussions. Some may lack skills for aspects of remote work or its broader role. Some may feel demotivated and detached from their teams, like they don’t fit in. These are all potential signs that an employee could benefit from more office time.
Start with psychological security
Back-to-the-office meetings are less challenging in organizations where employees feel psychologically safe — where they can discuss issues openly, with confidence, and without consequences.
How do leaders model and develop psychological safety? It takes time, but showing vulnerability and humility is a good start. Periodically ask how each person is doing, share personal challenges where appropriate, and welcome others to do the same. If you don’t want to disclose your problems, the staff won’t either.
Be sincere, curious, and kind when listening to your co-workers. Show gratitude. Appreciation for good work, additional effort and personal initiative are often neglected today. See failure as an opportunity to teach rather than judge. If there is psychological security, discussions with remote workers are much more likely to produce a positive outcome.
Prioritize the employee
The conversation about returning to office, whether full-time or part-time, needs to be centered around an individual’s business case—not a company’s business case.
Employees benefit from the office in many ways. Office workers are visible and part of the conversation. You will build relationships and experience first-hand how innovation and value creation are created. You benefit from spontaneous connections – fast and meaningful interactions that foster relationships and problem-solving. They learn by observing how leaders act and interact and are available for training and mentoring opportunities. All can support skill development, career advancement and intellectual stimulation in ways that often cannot be achieved remotely.
Remote workers need to hear this individual narrative along with the employer’s commitment to their needs and growth potential as they transition to more in-office time. It is important to note that for staff with mental health issues, a sudden return to office can make their situation worse. Staggered or flexible returns or supports such as professional counseling or peer support may be required.
Employees’ appetites to return to the office increase upon their return, when their experiences are pleasant and beneficial. To ensure this, companies must support individual narratives with real-world experiences. A company that celebrates the benefits of personal connections, innovation and professional growth cannot isolate employees in small cells, lock managers behind closed doors, or restrict employees from opportunities for collaboration and creativity.
- Make the return to work a collaborative one: Tell the employee, “We can do this together.”
- Accept imperfection: Be transparent about what companies don’t know but will learn.
- Prioritize security: Be aware of the protocols that remain in place to increase security and trust.
- Be flexible, as working standards change in face-to-face contact: For example, virtual meetings don’t work so well in open-plan offices.
Asking an employee to return to the office can have many consequences, including possible resignation. However, it also presents a tremendous opportunity to empower employees to find meaning and connection and to feel valued and valued. Today, as the battle for talent continues, companies tip the scales to shared success when they balance the unique needs of employees with the company’s long-term vision. While this intentional, thoughtful process can take time and effort, the benefits are tangible, shared, and inspiring.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, in which leaders and experts share their views and advice on the world of work. All Leadership Lab stories can be found at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for contributing to this column can be found here.