What we have here is a failure to communicate

Four million Americans quit their jobs in April according to the U.S. Labor Department – and yes, that’s a record number. ‘The Great Resignation’, as it has been coined by economists, has made its way into several headlines of late. But why? In a pandemic of a size and scale never seen before, is it time to up and quit your job – if you’re still lucky enough to have one? Can work really be that bad?

Maybe it’s the idea of returning to a pre-COVID-19 life in a cubicle farm, or a stale workplace without enough meeting rooms. Perhaps it’s because of the lack of certainty and communication from leadership around what’s happening next. It’s safe to assume we’re all fed up with the uncertainty, so surely the workforce is fed up with not knowing what the future holds. It would appear they are, and they’re off elsewhere, where post-pandemic strategies are in place and there’s clarity around what the word hybrid means.

In all honesty, we can speculate all we like and not really know the true sentiments around this.

What we do know, from polling 100 of the world’s CRE leaders, is that nearly a third of organisations are yet to fully plan their post-pandemic workplace strategy.

Even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly clear that we are living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. The acronym was first used in 1987 to describe the conditions created by the Cold War, but it is just as applicable to today’s economic downturns and unpredictable political landscape. Our Chief Insights and Research Officer, Dr. Peggie Rothe, has previously discussed how VUCA is shaping the employee experience. She argues that technology—a key instigator of VUCA—has made decision-making disorientating and robbed employees of hitherto certainties, such as nine-to-five days and fixed work desks.

Over the past year and a half, employees are likely to have felt anxious about their health, the wellbeing of their loved ones, job security, simultaneous changes to their home and working environments and the support of their colleagues and managers. How leadership communicates during this time is essential to easing employees’ fears and guiding them through this unprecedented period.

A further third of organisations in our poll of CRE leaders have a strategy in place, but they are yet to communicate this with their employees.

As plans are made around next steps for the future workplace it’s as important as ever to make your employees feel consulted, comfortable, and primed for what’s ahead. Not doing so could risk you losing your employees, their motivation, and their trust.

Clarity of communication is key
We’ve become accustomed to news and guidance, including social distancing measures and limits to public gatherings, changing quickly. To balance this volatility, it is crucial that you keep your colleagues up to date with accurate information. As Dr. Rothe explains in her article, technology has created a paradox of choice. The sheer volume of digital channels and images has led to information overload and decision fatigue; people now struggle to make well-informed or accurate choices.

The growing fake news crisis is a symptom of this paradox, and fake or merely ‘opinion-led’ news about COVID-19 is rife. Your organisation has a responsibility to cut through the noise. To tackle this, you can provide staff with the latest guidelines from trusted sources. Keep communication short, simple and to the point. You know you’ve got it right when there’s no room for interpretation.

Mitigate against the limitations of remote communication
Though they’re slowly populating again in many geographies, without access to an office, colleagues can’t visit each other’s desks, grab a coffee or organise impromptu meetings, which means nuances are lost and people can misinterpret expectations or directions. Data from our ongoing study into employees’ home working experience indicates that 53% of home workers feel their environment supports informal social interaction, compared with 76% of office workers. Without these informal chats, many workers are left at the mercy of whatever their manager remembers to tell them in the morning meeting. Being intentional about how, when, and why you communicate will make a huge difference to employees hungry for answers.

Invest in good technology
Video conferencing software and messaging apps are effective ways to keep colleagues talking, keep everyone on the same page and keep spirits high. Our home working research shows that 78% of employees feel their environment enables them to share knowledge among colleagues. This could be explained by the finding that 91% of employees from the same dataset have access to the software programmes they need to work from home. Clearly, employers that are not providing the right technology risk alienating employees and damaging their connection to the organisation. When planning a hybrid strategy for moving forward, this becomes even more critical.

Make sure people have the right furniture
The same goes for employees’ physical space in the home. Our research shows that only 43% of employees have a dedicated work room or office at home, while 31% have a dedicated work area and 27% work from a non-specific home location, such as a dining table. The average home working employee experience score (H-Lmi) of the third group is 12 percentage points lower than the first. These findings should push your organisation to find out what your employees’ physical spaces look like and what kind of furniture they use if you haven’t already. Armed with this knowledge, you can either provide tips to work in an ergonomic way or, better yet, provide employees with the right setup if you’re planning a hybrid future work strategy that involves a variety of spaces.

Learn about your employees’ home working experience
The first rule of communication is to know your audience, and with employees working from home it’s more difficult than ever to do that. To communicate effectively you need a full picture of your workforce: their age, the specifics and range of their work activities, and the physical and service features that support them while working from home.

Our data shows that the fewer different activities an employee does as a part of their role (i.e. meetings, individual work, presenting, collaborative work) the better their home working experience is likely to be. Without knowing how many activities each of your employees is undertaking, it’s impossible to know how you can support them and plan for the future.

Remind employees to switch off
A crucial element of VUCA is the way people work today; always switched on and always connected. Phones, laptops and messaging apps have resulted in 11pm emails, working on the weekends, and even the emergence of workcations. As a result, the barriers between work and life seem irrevocably broken.

It has become increasingly understood that employees need to work hours that suit their lifestyle and circumstances, such as childcare duties, noisy housemates, or simply preference. Employers should give people the freedom and choice to manage their own time, but remind them to take breaks and switch off whenever they can. If employees want to do focused work in the evenings, for example, you need to ensure that others understand they may not be available in the morning. Home working and hybrid working teams will only be effective if the rules are unambiguous and there is direction from the top that champions a more remote way of working. This means implementing processes that insist employees create barriers between work life and home life.

Create a feedback loop
A few months ago, it felt like this period of home working had no clear end. Things are beginning to look a little brighter, but the future is going to be a blended one. This means that people’s attitudes and feelings towards working from home may change. What worked for six months might not work for an entire year, and what worked for the first year may not work indefinitely. Many viewed the spring as the return to the office and are now deflated. Regardless of timeframes, organisations need to understand that their employees’ attitudes and expectations will change, so it’s essential to regularly check in and evaluate where people are at. It’s no longer enough to evaluate workplace experience annually; remote working means it needs to be far more frequent than that.

You don’t have all the answers, so don’t pretend to
It’s okay to say that you’re not 100% there yet. All current decisions should be hypotheses anyway. With events and guidance changing so quickly and the world getting used to what the world of work now means, the advice you give today may be out of date in a few months. What matters is that you keep employees updated regularly, act when you can and be proactive about finding out how their workplace experience is really going.

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