HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

The Great Wait: Workers in Limbo with Delayed Return to Office Plans

As companies postpone and reschedule their plans to return to the office, employees are wondering what will happen next. To better understand what’s on their minds with this back-to-work whiplash, Monster conducted a poll among workers focusing on vaccines and returning to work.

Delayed Return to Office Plans

Overall, employees are feeling uneasy with their constantly changing plans and want to know that their employer is keeping their needs in mind. Let’s explore poll results and the ambiguity many workers are navigating so HR professionals can keep this top of mind to ease their anxiety and create clear, consistent messaging so workers feel supported, seen, and heard.

Adhere to Vaccination Policies

The majority of workers (52%) in the poll indicated their employer does not require proof of vaccination to return to work, and that’s fine by them; 79% indicated they do not want their employer to require proof of vaccination.

Sentiments may change, however, in light of two new Executive Orders (EOs) by President Joe Biden mandating vaccines for federal workers and federal contractors, and healthcare workers at facilities that receive funding must show proof of vaccinations (with no testing options available in lieu of vaccinations). In addition, he asked the Department of Labor to issue a requirement for employers with 100 or more workers to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require unvaccinated workers to show a negative COVID-19 test at least weekly.

Reports have indicated that the new EOs will impact around 100 million workers.

Be Proactive in Communicating

Pandemic fatigue got you down? You’re not alone. When it feels like decisions are being made without employees in mind, that can lead to disgruntled and unheard workers. It’s important for them not to feel alone either.

Although nearly two-thirds (64%) of employees said their employer has been transparent about planning the return to work, more than half (54%) feel their employer is not listening and putting the needs of employees first.

This information can be helpful to HR to not only create policies to put the needs of employees first but also listen to them. Be proactive by scheduling all-hands meetings in a virtual town hall format during which employees can ask HR leaders and even the CEO anything. Conduct online anonymous surveys asking workers what they need, share results, and then indicate what will be done to address their concerns.

Pull Back the Curtain

Also, show them what you’ve been working on behind the scenes regarding the decision-making process. Employees are exhausted by constant changes to plans (41%), and 32% responded that their employer hasn’t shared a return-to-work plan.

If you don’t know what the plan is yet or if it keeps changing and you’d rather not share constant change of plans with workers, simply tell them. They may feel like it’s “us versus them,” but in reality, we’re in this together. And remind them that although it may feel like plans are constantly changing, that’s a direct result of the pandemic’s constantly changing course. (Silver lining: Both employers and employees have been incredibly flexible and agile during the past 18 months and counting, so that’s a skill that’s been serendipitously strengthened.)

Explain that we’re all in the same situation here, and communicate frequent updates through a weekly or semimonthly e-mail to employees, for example—even when there isn’t a concrete update to share. Communicate what you’ve been doing, consulting, thinking, meeting, and planning so they know HR is diligently working toward a plan that’s best for its employees, clients, and the business.

Listen to Employees

On a more micro level, managers should be empathetic and proactively reach out to individual members on the team to check in. Typically, you’d wait until year’s end for performance reviews, so consider this meeting an opportunity for open dialogue that’s not related to actual work.

Ask employees how they’re doing, how they’re holding up, and how you can better support them. Also, inquire about their thoughts on a work model, what they prefer, and what’s most productive for them. It’s a dialogue, not a monologue, and it should happen either on the phone or during a video call. Moreover, it can be an ongoing check-in instead of a one-and-done interaction.

Considering that 82% are considering changing jobs to find an employer with a return-to-work plan that fits their needs, it’s crucial for retention, as well as performance, to engage with employees and find out what type of plan would work best for them.  

Reflecting on the notion that we’re not in this alone, managers may seek support from other managers, too, so it’s not only a top-down approach. Rather, it’s a 360-degree effort. HR may want to promote more dialogue between different departments that perhaps didn’t previously work together so groups don’t operate in silos.

Help Ease Anxiety and Confusion

There’s no doubt that this collective experience in the constantly changing “new normal” can be anxiety-ridden and confusing for all of us. The majority of employees are feeling that anxiety (40%) and indicated in the poll that they’re split on their favored work model. More than one-third prefer in-person work, just under one-third seek a fully remote environment, and one-fourth are interested in a hybrid approach.  

During conversations managers have with their teams and by asking about their preferred work situation, they can also ask about when they would feel comfortable returning to the workplace. Nearly 40% shared they’re looking to return as soon as possible, 16% would be more comfortable after the start of 2022, and 16% would prefer never to return.

In addition to these conversations, HR may want to launch a new initiative or ramp one up if it already exists regarding available resources to ease their workers’ anxiety and concerns. This can range from lunch-and-learn meditations to mental health counselors to hiring a stand-up comedian for a monthly video call for levity to promoting and advocating for mental health days to taking time off and truly logging off so they return to work feeling refreshed and supported by their employer.

Vicki Salemi is a career expert for Monster and former corporate recruiter and HR leader, author, speaker, and columnist.