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Follow These 4 Rules for Returning to the Office

As if we didn’t have enough angst and division in this country, the newest emerging conflict (soon to dwarf even the disputes with the moronic anti-vaxxers) is between the WFHomers and their employers, the RTOers, who are intent upon and insisting on increasing the amount of time staffers need to spend in the office each week. While plenty of companies are pushing off the start dates for the grand return — some of the main tech companies are already targeting early next year — it’s clear that there’s a widening employee expectation gap, which is likely to expand even further as the Delta variant and its progeny spread. And the most disappointed team members aren’t necessarily who you’d expect. It’s the folks stuck in the middle who have the blues.

What’s especially concerning about the arguments on the right way to return is how quickly this debate is morphing into an economic class and caste struggle. It’s already become challenging for even the best-intentioned management teams to explain, try to empathetically justify, and, ultimately, to honestly break the sad news to certain important groups of their employees that life still isn’t fair, and that one size and one solution still doesn’t fit everyone. Telling people things they don’t want to hear is never easy. Years from now, when we all look back on this time and the pandemic in its entirety, one of the most discouraging realizations will be how disproportionately and unfairly Covid-19’s burdens were borne by people in different economic strata.

Executives across just about every industry will need to quickly figure out how to explain to their people, the media, and the world that many of their lower-paid workers need to be on site even though the company isn’t going to require others with different job responsibilities and requirements to do likewise. Worse yet, they’re going to have to tell a bunch of mid-level workers who clearly thought otherwise — and believed that they had a lot more flexibility and control over their lives than the folks on the factory floor — that they too are expected to show up. This latter news is likely to be the rudest of all the awakenings, because it’s as emotionally bound up in matters of perceived status as it is with regard to commuting costs, productivity, and other domestic issues.

Some of the companies that have tried to make the new requirements applicable across the board have found that — unlike the lower-level blue-collar and no-collar folks who pretty much knew that they were screwed since the pandemic started — the folks in the middle are already raising the biggest stink and threatening to go elsewhere, which is really the last thing these firms can afford at the moment.

Unfortunately, a lot of these “knowledge” and creative workers believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have many other alternatives to forlornly marching back to their cubicles. We’ll know soon enough whether their confidence is warranted or sadly misplaced. My own guess is that a lot of these folks will find that the type of positions and salaries they’re looking to replicate aren’t exactly abundant in the newly streamlined economy. And the ones wrapped up in the idea of simply starting their own businesses are even more likely to end up unhappy.

Another key part of the problem is that many of the senior people making these decisions have ridden out the crisis with minimal disruption, smoothed and softened by a robust stock market, so they don’t necessarily understand or appreciate just how radically millions of lives and circumstances have been changed, uprooted, and transformed. Nor do they get just how long and painful the return to whatever the new normal is likely to be for families concerned with continuing health and housing issues, their kids’ education, rearranging and resuming child and pet care, and supplementing lost spousal incomes.

Management has neither time nor the option to see what competitors are doing or how the variants are progressing when the day-to-day demands of the workplace and the requirements of the reinvigorated economy require clear and consistent answers and directions for their people. Now’s the time to bring people back to reality as well as the office, because, if you aren’t structuring and leading the “back to work” conversations, you can bet that the vacuum will be promptly filled with commentary, complaints, and criticisms that aren’t likely to be helpful in any way.

While there aren’t any perfect answers, here are four important ideas to keep in mind as you craft a policy and, more important, as you try to honestly communicate it to all the members of your team.

1. Explain what applies to everyone.

These conversations should start by making clear that the overall policies of the company are generally applicable to everyone (as they always have been) and that everyone is expected to comply. There will be exceptions based on a variety of reasons and criteria, as there also have always been. But no group of employees is being specially treated or afforded privileges that don’t have a clear business-related purpose and value to the firm.

2. Note that there have always been variable shifts, seasons, and schedules.

In many respects, once we return to the “new” normal, the way that the business will operate won’t be materially changed for most of the employees, and it’s important to make this clear. If the company’s basic policy is going to be “all hands on deck,” which it always was pre-pandemic, then there’s not really much left to discuss. It’s just getting back to business.

3. Make sure your distinctions are meaningful and matter.

You can be sure that everyone in the firm will know exactly who is being asked to do what. That means it’s very important that you have a precise and ready rationale for each group of employees who are treated differently in some respect. Having your senior team lead by example and make it their business to be on site and visible will be very important.

4. Focus on what you can fix.

It’s essential to show all the team members that the company is being proactive and helpful in addressing and providing assistance and solutions for the various recurring issues that many will be dealing with. Flexible hours including early departure times, pet friendly offices, in-office Covid testing, and vaccinations are some of the common remedies. But be ready to improvise.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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