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How to ‘Return to Work’ in the New Employee Life Experience

‘Return to work’ is taking on a meaning much broader than merely ‘return to office’ and work as it once was. Organizations are formulating new philosophies and approaches to work as their proverbial company doors open. They are asking themselves whether work truly needs to be done in the office to produce stellar results. In addition, they are asking whether the approach to work is a one size fits all or whether it can look differently based on the nature of the job or the needs and desires of the employee themselves. And, if the answer to the latter is "yes", how do we do that? How can we most successfully reach our business objectives?

Even before the pandemic, we have questioned why we continue to do things because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Our current situation has led us to challenge our assumptions in a more focused and timely manner about how work can get done and how organizations can be successful, and in some cases, even more successful.

Since the beginning of 2020, leaders have had more visibility into employees' personal lives than ever before. Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have welcomed our leaders, peers, stakeholders and clients into our homes, with our children, our pets, our books and our kitchens and living rooms. We can no longer aim to compartmentalize the life of our employees (or their own lives). There is no turning back. This thing called ‘life’ is part of the equation for organizational growth and success.

From Life Cycle to Life Experience

So, we have moved from the terminology of the employee life cycle (a time-centered process that prospective, current, and departing employees experience during the course of their tenure in a company) to the employee experience (an employee-centric perspective that reflects the organization’s culture and serves as a branding tool for your organization in the market), and more recently, to the employee life experience, a human-centered lens which includes the reality of one’s personal and family obligations, the individual’s physical and psychological well-being and an individual’s motivations, passion, purpose and fulfillment.

While to some, this may sound squishy (a technical term), our ultimate goal is to thrive, not just survive. Attending to the life’s needs and desires of your employees will drive your organization’s business success. In fact, according to Gartner’s 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey, employers that support employees with their life experience see a 20% increase in the number of employees reporting better mental and physical health and a 21% increase in the number of high performers. Simply put, employees will be more engaged, fulfilled, and productive in organizations that take actions to support a full range of life experiences.

Gartner also finds that organizations that offer employees flexibility over when, where and how much they work, see 55% of their work force as high performers. In fact, full-time remote workers are 5% more likely to be high performers than those who work full-time from the office, according to the study. Furthermore, we are already seeing anecdotal evidence for Gartner’s prediction of an increase in number of jobs in which employees are measured based on output, as opposed to time in the office.

Tips for Leaders & Organizations

So, what can you do to focus on well-being, community and flexibility as you transition your employees back to work? McKinsey offers the following tips:

  • Build trust. Listen to your employees and be readily available to help them, allow them to use their judgement and expertise to solve their own problems, include them in your communications and decision-making.

  • Focus on effectiveness and well-being. Address your employees’ immediate safety and stability needs while also paying attention to the underlying drivers of their engagement, well-being and work effectiveness.

  • Tailor your approach. Employees’ needs and experiences vary. Take a personalized approach to foster culture and enable change in this new world of work.

  • Create an inclusive community of belonging. Ensure the voices of your employees are heard, despite where they are working from; that they understand how they fit into the bigger picture; and that their contributions are impactful and valued. Create opportunities to continue to build your professional relationships and broaden your network, within and outside your organization.

And what can organizations do? Gartner suggests the following:

  • Rather than developing a policy about work flexibility, develop a philosophy, within which leaders and employees can agree upon what the best approach is for them.

  • Communicate the purpose of the office to your employees - a workspace, team or company meeting place, a community gathering space.

  • Train managers on how to manage dispersed employees, including focusing on output rather than process, trust rather than micromanage, setting clear goals and open, two-way conversation between manager and employee about techniques to best support your employees and about rationale behind departmental or organizational decisions.

  • Consider meaningful modifications to your organization’s hiring, onboarding, performance management and advancement processes, to name a few, that will foster and reinforce your employees’ life experiences.

With the administration of COVID-19 vaccines, we as leaders may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief now that we are feeling a greater sense of security and are returning to a sense of ‘normalcy’. We know that what’s ahead is going to be hard, requiring focus, planning and intention. But, I am a believer that it will be worth it, as it will make us propel our performance, maximize our potential and result in highly successful business endeavors and results.

We are in this together. Let’s keep the channels of communication open - share with each other what’s working well and what’s not. Learn from each other’s successes.

As always, I’m here to support you as you bring life into your employees’ experience.

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