Learning & Development

The Great Mismatch: Navigating a Win-Win Relationship Between Employers & Employees

Finding a new normal in the workplace after Covid-19 has been more difficult than many people expected. Some organizations have demanded a return to the way work was done pre-pandemic. Others have tried to find new, hybrid ways of working or greatly expanded remote work. Much of that is in response to the fact that some workers are excited to return to the office while others are enjoying working from home, at least more often than they did before. This is sometimes called “The Great Mismatch.”

Where’s The Mismatch?

While you might not have heard of the Great Mismatch, you’ve certainly read about some of the problems that stem from it. First there was The Great Resignation (I’m not going back to the office, and if you make me. I’ll work elsewhere.) Then the news was all a buzz with “Quiet Quitting,” (Okay, I’ll go back but I’m not happy about it and I’ll probably have one foot out the door.) Now we read about companies feeling betrayed because they “let” employees keep their jobs and work from home, but now that the worst of the pandemic is over, the ungrateful wretches don’t want to “get back to work.”

Simply put, there’s a disconnect between the needs of the business and the expectations of employees. While that gap has always existed, the workplace had decades of experience and basically agreed on what work should look like, and it was based on some basic assumptions.

The employer knew their business, and provided a physical location where work took place. They hired people to work there and paid them accordingly. Workers knew this and agreed to show up and do the desired tasks in exchange for a paycheck. That arrangement worked well and wasn’t challenged until recently.

A perfect storm challenged these assumptions. Technology, especially mobile devices, allowed people to work outside the office with no noticeable loss in productivity or quality. There were tentative experiments, and remote work was on the rise by 25% per year through the early 2000s. Then Covid struck, and suddenly people were doing jobs that were considered essential from other locations. And they weren’t given a choice.

Not only did we discover that tasks could be completed without being in the same place at the same time, but people adjusted their lives. After a lot of trial and error, many people found they had more time to spend with their families, saved money on things like commuting and car expenses. Not everyone liked working from home, but both employers and staff made it work.

In fact, it worked better than almost anyone predicted, and that’s a primary source of the disconnect.

A lot of employers want to put the last three years in the rear-view mirror and get back to the way things were before. They have costs sunk in things like office space and equipment that weren’t being maximized. The way their business has been run for years was disrupted. Intangible but vital factors like corporate culture, networking and leadership development relied on people being in physical proximity with each other. Covid was an inconvenience best forgotten, and those objecting to returning to the office were ungrateful and selfish.

On the other hand, many employees had a very different experience. March of 2020 caused massive upheaval in people’s health, home lives, and work life balance. It was expected that they would make these adjustments and weren’t consulted. They sacrificed, changed their lives, and succeeded for the good of the company. People adjusted their routines, their finances, and their approach to the job. Not only that, but they discovered they could be productive and connected without going into the office every day. Now the employers would like to ignore that sacrifice and upheaval and pretend like the last three years never happened.

So, yes, there’s a significant mismatch in expectations.

Navigating the Gaps

The first sign that there was a disconnect between the parties was minor but extremely informative. Starting in 2021, we began to hear organizations clamoring, and preparing, for Return to Work. That phrase brought howls of outrage from employees who’d continued doing their jobs through the whole period. “Return to work? What do you think we’ve been doing this whole time?” The language quickly pivoted to Return to Office, or RTO. That calmed the waters somewhat but revealed the differences in language and expectations.

Organizations that have had successful RTOs have acted in similar ways. Here are four of the best practices:

  • They engaged with every level of the organization before making decisions. Senior leaders may underestimate how people will respond to going back to the office. They need to know where resistance is coming from.  Is it purely emotional or are there other factors that might mean returning to the status quo isn’t the right answer? Often supervisors and managers have a clearer view of how well the team is operating than those in the home office.
  • They were transparent about the needs of the business while acknowledging the impact on employees. Part of the resistance to returning to the office was a sense that the organization didn’t appreciate the impact of the last three years on people. Some viewed the RTO effort as Leaders pretending like it didn’t happen, or not appearing grateful for the sacrifices people made. There may be compelling, legitimate reasons to bring everyone back together, but those need to be laid out in a rational clear way while acknowledging and accommodating, how employees’ lives have changed. Present RTO (in whatever form it takes) as the best solution for your circumstances. Not everyone will like it, but that’s the nature of compromise.
  • They carefully re-examined how and where tasks could (and should) be done and put policies in place to support that. Does work really need to be done in the old, co-located way or is that just how Senior Leadership are more comfortable. The pandemic demonstrated that a lot of work that used to require being on-site could be done very well from elsewhere. Do people need to return to the office full time? Is a more hybrid approach a good way to get work done while allowing people flexibility and a sense of ownership in their work? These are tough questions, but getting the answers right will determine the success of the RTO effort.
  • They put “pilot before policy.”  Companies should consider conducting experiments and short-term pilots to see if their RTO policy makes sense.  Top-down dictates often create knee-jerk negative reactions from employees, so instituting pilot programs may feel less coercive. People will be more engaged if they feel like they have a chance to influence the future. Additionally, if the last few years have proven anything, it’s that the future is uncertain, and things can change. One organization created a back-to-office policy, brought everyone in and two weeks later they had to shut the physical office down because of a major Covid outbreak. Now they are looking at hybrid work as a solution. Always reserve the right to get smarter as you go.

By recognizing the different perspectives of both employees and the organization, it’s possible to identify the common goals and ways of viewing work, but to address any gaps.

The Great Mismatch might exist, but it doesn’t have to be as disruptive and destructive as many people fear.

Wayne Turmel is a master trainer and coach at The Kevin Eikenberry Group. He has spent the last twenty+ years fascinated by how people communicate—or don’t—at work. His work has helped organizations on four continents develop the communication skills needed to lead people, projects, and teams and to make the adjustment to remote working and virtual teams. A leadership development expert, remote work pioneer, and author, Turmel dives into the latest research and his new book “The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success.”

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