I was recently talking to a friend who’s beyond frustrated at work. Two years ago, COVID threw his company into chaos. Between supply chain, quarantine, and labor issues, his company was tested to the max. While his company is still dealing with the lingering effects of these issues, another residual and unexpected issue has been brought about by COVID: the split between in-office and home office workers, and the underlying challenges associated with this mix.
For companies in which ALL employees are able to work from home, there are many productivity challenges that need to be navigated to make the remote work arrangement successful. But these issues are magnified when some employees are allowed to work from home and others must report to the office – often against their will.
In my friend’s case, the employees responsible for dealing with physical product must report to work each day. (The same is true for those in the service and retail industries, or for any employee who has direct contact with customers and clients.) However, many other employees, such as budget and analytical staff, can perform their duties remotely - on a computer - without needing to be in the office to get the job done.
For those who work from home, this new normal is often an answer to prayer. These employees tend to enjoy a greater work-life balance as less time is spent commuting and less money is spent on clothing, gasoline, and meals. Most of these employees have adapted to the home office environment and are in no rush to rejoin the in-office rat race.
But for those who must report to work each day, the new normal looks a bit different. Full offices and bustling cubicles have been replaced by emptiness and silence. The office that used to be full and energetic now sits half-empty, deserted. It is easy to see how frustrations and resentment can easily build as the in-office employees show up every day and do not see many of their counterparts doing the same.
Once bustling office is now deserted post-COVID
As someone who has worked from home for almost 25 years, hearing my friend’s perspective on this has been very enlightening, and has helped me understand the frustrations of those who cannot work from home. In the spirit of better understanding these frustrations AND looking for answers, here are a few of the top concerns of in-office employees and some suggestions for ways managers can address these concerns head on.
Top Concerns of In-Office Employees
1. The perception that at-home workers have an all-round easier arrangement
We all know how tough a commute to and from work can be. For many people, the eight-hour work day feels more like a 10-hour work day when the daily commute is factored in. It can be a tough pill to swallow knowing that your at-home workmates can roll out of bed at 7:45 AM (shower optional) and throw on a sweatshirt for an 8 AM start time. You, on the other hand, have to be up at 6 AM to shower, dress, pack your lunch, fight traffic, park, walk to the building, and be at your desk, all chipper and ready to go at 8:00 AM - then do everything in reverse at the end of the day. Doesn't really seem fair, does it?
While misery loves company, I don’t think the solution is necessarily for everyone to be forced back into the office, equally strung out and our roadways even more crammed. You see, I think the opposite is true. Being in the office has many benefits, and the key is in emphasizing and enhancing the benefits of being in the office.
So what can managers do? Here are just a few suggestions:
- Consider implementing an expense allowance. Right now, gasoline rates are soaring. Although I work from a home office, I drive my son to school each day and am spending approximately $200 more to fill up my tank each month than I did during the COVID lockdowns. Many others spend a lot of money on tolls, parking, and public transportation. There’s also the cost of wear and tear on personally owned vehicles. On the flip side, I’ve heard stories of at-home employees who have been able to eliminate one car from their family’s inventory since they no longer have the daily commute. There are also costs associated with a professional clothing wardrobe and those “optional” lunches and other fundraisers.
I believe that a token expense allowance added to the paycheck of in-office employees would go a long way in showing appreciation for the fact that the extra expenses are seen and understood, and that the sacrifices the employees make are valued.
- Provide opportunities for flexible schedules. Even if your at-home workers still “punch a clock,” the truth is that there is inherent flexibility built into the remote work arrangement. Because they are in the home environment, they can tend to things such as repair appointments, doctor’s visits, and child drop-offs more easily than those who are in the office all day. Recognize this and offer your in-office employees the opportunity to start later, or to take an extended or shortened lunch or other break as needed to tend to personal matters. This will go a long way in showing that you understand that the employee’s personal responsibilities are every bit as pressing as they are for those who work from home.
- Provide opportunities for more autonomy. Similar to the desire for more flexibility, recognize that all workers desire more autonomy. At-home workers naturally have more autonomy, so be mindful of this and look for ways to provide more autonomy for your in-office workers as well. As long as employees are getting the job done, no one needs to have someone looking over their shoulder all day (and if they do require this level of supervision, that is a separate performance issue that needs to be addressed).
- Make the office environment engaging and enjoyable! OK, so in-office workers don’t have all the creature comforts of home at their disposal. There is no fluffy bundle of love nestled at their feet, no favorite blanket to grab, no Alexa to play soft jazz in the background. But there is plenty that can be done to make the workplace more inviting. What can you say YES to in the workplace? What can you allow? Maybe Potsy the Poodle can’t come to work (or can he?), but could Alexa be piped in? Could a comfortable reading nook be added, or could plants be situated around the office? What about a fresh coat of paint, artwork on the walls, lunchtime or late afternoon social gatherings? Consider ways to make the workplace a place that people WANT to come to each day. Suddenly the at-home workers don’t have all the advantages.
Make the workplace enjoyable
- The perception that at-home workers are simply not responsive or working as hard
The #1 beef of my friend who is struggling with the hybrid office arrangement is that at-home workers are not responding to emails and phone calls. It often takes hours, if not days, to receive a response. This is especially problematic because the same at-home employees used to be more responsive when in the physical office (leading to the perception that they must be on the golf course or catching up on Days of our Lives now that they have the freedom to “work” from home).
Back in the old days, it was possible to pop into someone’s office or cubicle at any time to discuss an issue. Now, it requires an email, phone call, or text, and often several follow-ups, to get an answer.
So, what can managers do about this?
- Implement an instant messaging and project channels application. Applications like Slack show the status of employees as Active or Away, and provide project channels for communication to take place. There is also the option to set Do Not Disturb, In a Meeting, On Vacation, and other similar status messages so that other employees know what to expect and when you can be contacted. An app like this is critical to help in-office and at-home workers feel more connected, and provides a space to keep conversations flowing and documented. The conversations can be set to different levels of privacy and can also be searched on, which is a fantastic feature for recalling decisions and details down the road (trust me, I have come to rely heavily on the Slack search feature to keep me on track)! When in-office workers can see that work is still being done, it helps ease the frustrations that can be felt when you can’t see that person sitting at their desk. Zoom, or other videoconferencing apps, are also an essential tool for planned and ad hoc meetings, and should be used extensively.
- Set expectations regarding timely responses. Managers need to hold employees accountable for the same level of responsiveness and professionalism as when these same employees worked in the physical office. Make sure employees understand the expectation to respond to phone calls, emails, texts, and even Slack messages as promptly as possible. Set up procedures for elevating a message to urgent level (perhaps tag the message with *911), and make it standard operating procedure for employees to respond as quickly as possible, even if the response is as simple as “I will look into this for you and will try to have an answer by 3 PM today.” The point is – in-office employees cannot see at-home employees, and the burden is on the at-home employees to make their presence felt as much as possible through the same high level of service and responsiveness that would be expected in the physical office. The workday is still the workday, no matter whether it’s down the hall from the kitchen or across town. And by the way, managers, you must set the standard for this level of communication by being available, responsive, and professional above all others.
Make sure remote workers respond in a timely manner
3. The perception that in-office workers have to pick up the slack around the office
Most jobs require some of the infamous “other duties as required.” When only a core group of employees are in the office each day, it can seem like they are picking up the slack for everyone else. Whether the “other” duties include going through the mail, restocking the Keurig, unlocking the doors in the morning, staying late for a delivery, responding to a last-minute work urgency, attending in-person meetings with clients, or some other type of “ad hoc” responsibility, it can be disheartening to feel that you are carrying more of the load than others.
What can managers do about this?
- Establish an “all in” day each week or month. Many offices require all staff members to be in the office one day per week, often on Wednesdays. These “all in” days can be used to collaborate as needed and also to make sure some of the collateral duties are taken care of and spread around equitably. Client meetings can also be set for these days. It is important to keep everyone engaged with the bottom line of the organization and to ensure that all employees share in the responsibility of keeping the office running smoothly.
- Express appreciation for “above and beyond” efforts. A little bit of gratitude goes a long way. Be sure to acknowledge employees who consistently go the extra mile, whether it’s through a word of appreciation, a monetary token, a gift card, or praise on weekly status reports. Sometimes the best employees simply want to know that their efforts do not go unnoticed. By setting this example, other employees will be more inclined to express their appreciation as well.
The Hybrid Office is a Delicate Balancing Act
Very few managers were trained to manage both in-office AND remote employees simultaneously. It is certainly a delicate balancing act, but one that can truly benefit the bottom line in terms of reduced office costs, increased employee satisfaction, and a lower impact on the environment from fewer commuters. However, let’s not lose the faithful old in-office worker in the process. The last thing any organization needs is to lose some of its most dedicated employees because of perceived inequities in the hybrid workplace. Managers have the opportunity to bring both in-office and at-home workers together for a common goal, and to manage each group effectively according to their unique work arrangement. By taking some or all of the steps I’ve discussed in this article, you can help make your workforce stronger, and more cohesive, than ever.