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The 9-to-5 era is over, but does a mandatory return to the office take a step backward? 

January 16th, 2023 marks the beginning of the mandatory return-to-workplace policy announced by the Treasury Board only one month prior. The policy will require all Government workers to gradually return to the office two or three times a week and be fully implemented by the end of March 2023.

According to the Public Service Alliance Canada (PSAC), 80% of its members oppose the government’s hybrid work plan. There has been backlash from public service unions who argue that the location of work should be up for negotiation, especially after almost three years of successful remote work. PSAC has announced they will be filing a statutory freeze complaint against the Treasury Board surrounding inappropriate changes to working conditions.

The overall feeling by workers has been that this is a step backward in the future of work. Having experienced a high degree of freedom and productivity that came from the full-time remote work system, workers feel their freedom is being jeopardized for unacceptable reasons. To go from that level of freedom, down to being forced to return to the office, can seem rather punitive.

Despite the numerous arguments for and against the policy, when there is too much focus on opposing the mandate, the time and process required to make the transition successful become a last-minute afterthought, resulting in more stress, reduced engagement, and disorganization if a surrender by the opposing party finally does occur. Inevitably, this results in claims that the policy “didn’t work” or was the wrong decision and that resistance continues, impacting the quality of work and culture for future employees.

It is critical for managers to continue to plan for all outcomes. There have been threats of quitting, and or refusals to return for health concerns, and those employees can continue to fight for their beliefs and file grievances while building their union case if they please. In the event that grievances are lost and employees choose to stay, managers must consider preparing an implementation plan or begin to formulate a strategy that would prevent the start of a toxic culture and presenteeism without engagement.

At Intersol, we understand that this specific policy may be unprecedented, but in our experience, it is not unlike past contentious Government policies where backlash was present. We can anticipate some similar expected outcomes and behaviors that managers can better prepare for, address, and move toward a positive implementation, faster.

What Managers Should Expect:

  • Resistance. Lots of it. There will always be employees that abuse the policy or don’t meet the minimum day requirement. Especially in the beginning, as a form of protest.
  • Lack of engagement. There will be silent compliance, of the bare minimum. Any motivation to do what is “above and beyond” will be at an all-time low. It could look like being physically present for the sake of meeting the policy, with little or no tangible productivity.
  • Culture Disruptors. Those who are resistant to the very end will take every opportunity to persuade others to make office-life harder than it needs to be. There will be the ones that fail to embrace the policy and maximize efforts to point out all the negative aspects. This can create a disruptive working environment for colleagues and managers alike.
  • Turnover. For those who choose not to ride it out, managers are left with the joy of filling in for exiting employees while juggling the search for new hires.
  • Ambiguity. Since managers are left to select the finer details surrounding the policy, there will be some benefits and downsides to each approach before getting it right.

How to Address the Upheaval:

  • Roll with Resistance: It is a normal part of the change and often, the immediate response is to reprimand or put significant protocols in place to enforce the policy. This usually makes everyone pay the price for a few non-conformers. Assess how to address overt resistance with the individual(s) in question before giving it more attention than it deserves. Avoid passive aggressive emails that re-state the policy. It’s not enough to notice that someone is failing to meet his/her number of days in office, but more about knowing exactly “why” this behavior continues.
  • Engage with Purpose: In smaller teams, it can be noticeable when one person shows decreased engagement. It can show up in diverse ways, but collaboration often suffers the most. Let’s face it, work is much more pleasant when the collaborative spirit is strong. Managers often make the mistake of trying to engage individuals with one-time, temporary tactics like Friday pizza days or remodelling the office to be “chic” and modern. Those are all short-term band aids and will not engage people for the long haul. Keep engagement strategies about the work and what is meaningful to those carrying out the work. Think of, and look for, what employees’ value most in their job. Learning new things? Consider a learning and development curriculum. Mentoring others? Design a mentorship program that empowers employees to teach and learn from others.
  • Enhance the Culture: To address culture disruptors, a workplace should contain more culture enhancers. The greatest predictors of a positive workplace culture are inclusivity, respect, honesty, ethical, sympathetic atmosphere (rather than a coat-throat one) and compassionate managers. All workplaces, in-person or remote, can benefit from making room for these core traits. Leaders should embed them into the company values and integrate across all departments. Consider bringing in experts in the field for corporate training programs. If leaders build this in and display these values themselves, the workplace begins to transform.
  • Remember to Support the Non-Quitters: Often, if a staff member quits, it can become a real frenzy to find a replacement or provide support and coverage. The most common response is to offload or divide the departing employee’s work to their colleagues so the manager can focus on finding a suitable replacement promptly. The odd time, things fall into place, and the departing employee has enough overlap with the new hire to train them, preventing major disruption to workflow. But sadly, it rarely works out that way. Managers are left to play catch up. They must continue delivering their own work while adding a rushed hiring task and ensuring continuity for the departing employee’s work. It’s easy to forget about the staff that did not quit. It’s important to have good measures in place such as cross-training, documentation, and handbooks so that remaining staff is not left “penalized” with more work and less attention because of a departing employee.
  • Be Gentle: Be transparent with staff that this is a first time for everyone. Re-assure them that it may take a few tries to get things rolling. Remember, it’s a lot of change in a short amount of time. Experiment with a few options such as one day a week where everyone comes to work so there is a dedicated day for teamwork and in-office collaboration. It could take a few tweaks along the way to get into a good groove. Consider consulting the team on what might be the most valuable to them when it comes to Hybrid options but keep it action-oriented and solution-based rather than giving voice to negative comments that do not contribute to a path forward.

We can help you navigate the change and hold meaningful and impactful conversations to ensure that your team transitions positively while establishing a great working environment and setting up the foundation for success.

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