In the past two years, the pandemic has dominated trends around the workplace – particularly those who are traditionally desk- or office-based.
Now, as restrictions have lifted and the working world settles into the long-promised ‘new normal’, we can see how post-pandemic working practices are beginning to reshape the employee-employer relationship at the core. When a change of role no longer means a change of workplace (whether a home office, spare bedroom or kitchen table), the key pillars of employer culture and engagement style can be distilled beyond recognition – or indeed, impact.
Following the ‘Great Resignation’ of late 2020 and 2021, there are now a large number of people who are reported to regret leaving their jobs. A recent poll for USA Today shows that only a quarter of people who switched liked it enough to stay. So how did the Great Resignation end up turning into the Great Remorse? And where do we go from here?
A steep learning curve
As the pandemic-induced shutdowns began in early 2020, many companies were forced to switch to a fully remote working model almost overnight. In a brutal and dramatic shift, mandated by law, millions of employees worldwide were suddenly forced to substitute rich and diverse professional networks for unfamiliar full-time home working which placed a very different burden on home life and personal relationships. The substitution was to a daily succession of digital meetings with talking heads on screens, followed by a new wave of debriefs and ‘workplace’ rants with roommates, partners, and family members, instead of colleagues and peers.
In the beginning, it felt remote and even intimidating for some people because there were no established rules or norms for this new type of interaction. As the ‘new presenteeism’ was characterised by back-to-back video calls and sharing of screens, it didn’t take long before the standard response to the question ‘how are you?’ was an endless busy list of tasks and challenges. In many ways, millions of professional service and gig economy workers lost the collaboration, engagement and creativity that had defined their roles for decades. A lack of employer understanding of the rules of engagement only added fuel to the flames.
The emerging reality of the new remote normal
Less than 25 per cent of organisations in the UK had any kind of working from home policy at the start of the pandemic.
During that time of fear and uncertainty, organisations said that everyone able to, should work from home, as required by healthcare and government advice organisations. The hidden flaws, of course, were no clear rules of engagement of what this meant for working environments, very few plans for a return to work in the longer term, and absolutely no understanding of what that return to work should look like.
Early on, two things became apparent to people as they became accustomed to this new reality. Firstly, some people realised that how they ‘did life’ could be different with the removal of travel and the time that took. Time with families, walks with the dog, an hour each day of exercise, and long-forgotten hobbies were now possible without the need to commute. Many realised that their work could be done from remote locations and took the opportunity to relocate, embracing the rural dream or benefiting from arbitrage in the cost of living, or both. In fact, one survey estimates nearly a third of Gen Z and Millennials relocated during the pandemic, and much of our experience has put remote-led flexibility to the fore of decision making for this generation in particular.
Secondly, further drawn to their phones and devices with wider lockdown restrictions, many heads were turned by the idea of ‘more’ and ‘better’. This was endorsed and supported by organisations looking to promote a ‘grass is greener’ perspective. This encouraged people to question the jobs they had and wonder whether there was a way of creating livelihoods and careers which had greater meaning and purpose. Some sought to take advantage of digital adoption and transformation and use this to their advantage, turning their backs on a physical workplace and office and moving to somewhere very remote. As employers wrestled with the reality of how to manage a return to the office amid this new appetite for remote working, many employees became enticed by job ads promising a digital-first workplace with occasional workplace presence required.
Expectations ≠ reality
And so we began to see the reach of the Great Resignation. But as the old saying goes, act in haste, repent at leisure. As we’ve seen, people are now signalling their regret at having rushed into a move that was driven so much by the extraordinary events of the time. According to the USA Today survey, 36 per cent of movers lament a loss of work-life balance in this ‘always on’ digital experience; and 30 per cent say their new role isn’t what they expected, with a lack of ability to gauge culture over Zoom interviews cited as a problem. People who were sold the dream of permanently working remotely now appear to be realising that the reality is somewhat different.
None of this is to imply that remote working is inherently bad. Rather, the pace of change necessitated by the pandemic made it impossible to meaningfully preempt any of the long-term impacts of remote working on the nature of the working relationship.
However, the genie is now out of the bottle, and employers and employees alike need to find a long-term solution to the remote versus in-person conundrum that meets mutual expectations on both sides.
Employee and employer takeaways
It should be said that it is possible to operate a digital-first workplace that can achieve sustainable employee engagement and maintain healthy professional relationships. As organisations seek to balance business goals with employee preference, however, there is an emerging trend of dissatisfaction on both sides.
There is clearly no denying the benefit of in-person meetups for establishing strong interpersonal connections with a leader, a team, and an organisation. We are tribal, social creatures and we are at our best when operating and learning together. Seeing and experiencing the positive energy and creative tension that is created when teams do eventually get together after a two-year digital hiatus shows clear benefits that people – and companies – experience when teams get together.
It could even be compared to the difference between visiting a place in person and reading about it from home. You can do all the research and get a sense of how things might be on the ground, but there’s no substitute for the holistic, sensory experience of visiting a place in person – where you can pick up on sights, smells, sounds, as well as all the non-verbal cues in any workplace dynamic.
For the now omnipotent digital-first workplaces that the pandemic has borne, leaders need to ensure they create the foundational principles of culture and ways of working to allow aligned rules of engagement.
The major themes that came out of the 2020/21 leadership literature and employee wellbeing surveys contained words and phrases like ‘empathy’, ‘trust’, and ‘creating a sense of belonging’. And though the establishment of a baseline for in-person presence may involve some difficult discussions or negotiations with people who feel fiercely protective of their remote working arrangements, leaders should feel empowered to reject the short-term capitulation to a remote model that doesn’t leave room to cultivate working relationships. In the long term, establishing a healthy digital working culture where people feel part of a valued workforce will prove to be the best differentiator for employers looking to stand out.
In short, you either get the culture that you want by intent or you get the culture you deserve. Organisations that create a clear and common understanding of their culture (the unspoken assumptions about how things get done) will benefit in a significant way. It will allow people to embrace this ‘next’ normal to create a sense of belonging, even when remote, that attracts and keeps the best talent in a fiercely competitive labour market.
Ian Johnston is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles