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Top tips to help HR managers to manage return to office conflicts

As we emerge from lockdown in Melbourne, there is increasing discussion about the determination of employees to retain some of the flexibility they've experienced over the last two years. Many employees are demanding to continue working from home. The benefits of reduced commutes, greater flexibility to attend to family needs (getting that load of washing on in between meetings) and the ability to wear tracksuit pants and Ugg boots to meetings are just too good to give up!

While there are some companies for whom the remote workplace will become the new normal, this won't be the case for all companies. For some, the impact of having too many remote workers will be considered significant. The benefits of the casual interactions that happen in the office and contribute to the training junior staff will be considered greater than the detriment to staff who want to work from home. Some companies will encourage, if not require, employees to return to full time work in the office. For some this is likely to be one of the leading causes of what is being dubbed “The Great Resignation”.

In many companies, the conversations with employees about their ability to retain remote working conditions will be delegated to HR. Many of the HR practitioners I have spoken with have indicated that they are dreading having to deal with these conversations. Some feel under-skilled to deal with the level of emotion and conflict that is expected. Others struggle with how to enforce a policy that they don’t themselves agree with.

In this article, I share my tip tips to assist HR managers to have these conversations with confidence.

Tip 1 – Be clear on your goal

If your company has a stated policy of no working from home (at least not officially!) then you may not have a lot of room to negotiate with employees. In this case, your goal may be to manage the relationship between the company and the employee rather than to negotiate an outcome. The way you manage the conversation can mean that, even if the employee remains unsatisfied with the outcome, they can be satisfied with the conversation they have had and they can feel respected.

While this may ultimately not stop an employee from leaving the company if working from home is that important to them, it can protect the reputation of the company. A disgruntled employee can share their experience in a way which damages the company’s reputation and therefore, it’s ability to recruit in the future.

Tip 2 - Make time to listen

One thing guaranteed to leave an employee disgruntled, is to demonstrate a complete unwillingness to hear why flexibility is so important to them.

Your company may have a very clear policy that requires staff to work a certain percentage from the office. It may therefore seem that having long and involved discussions with staff about why flexibility is so important to them is a complete waste of time. No doubt, you have a heavy workload and could be using your time for other things.

Here’s the problem though, if you fail to make time to listen to the employee, you almost certainly will leave them feeling upset or angry at being ignored. Even where you can’t do much to change the situation, taking the time to hear the employee’s perspective can be important in preserving the relationship they have with the company – and with you! The employee will be less likely to be dissatisfied with the process of how the request has been dealt with. Even if they are dissatisfied with the outcome. And it may just be that there are other solutions you can find that assist them in some way.

Tip 3 – Ask questions

So, if you have made the time to listen, they you need to ask good questions to get the employee talking. By asking questions and listening carefully to the answers, you demonstrate empathy for the employee. By demonstrating this empathy you help them feel heard and minimise the risk of them feeling ignored and undervalued.

Asking open questions about the impact of flexibility for them and what they are looking for are is the start. Questions can also be used to help the employee consider flexibility from the company's perspective.

For example, rather than saying “We don’t have the capacity to consider flexibility requests from every employee at this point in time” try “We have 350 employees. If we were to fully consider requests from each employee, how long do you think it would take us? Which employees do you think would agree that they shouldn’t be considered a priority?”

By asking questions in a way which gets the other person thinking, you can limit the risk that they will instantly disagree with anything you tell them just because you are seen as being “on the company’s side”.

Tip 4 – Be prepared

Knowing that these conversations are likely to occur, it is important that HR managers take the time to understand the reasoning behind the Company’s policy so that they can explain it to the employees in a way that makes sense.

Asking questions of those who have created the policy to understand what the interests of the company are that need to be protected may give you some ideas as to how the policy may be adapted from time to time to provide some amount of flexibility to employees. It may also mean that, as you hear employee stories, you come up with ways in which the policy may be changes to suit both employer and employee.

If you yourself disagree with the policy, this can present an extra challenge. Do you tell employees that you are on their side or do you support the company line. By understanding the concerns behind the company’s policy, you are better placed to take a “help me to help you” approach with the employees. Bringing collaborative problem solving discussions about alternatives to the current policy may produce new ideas.

If the policy is totally inflexible, and the interest behind this is that there is too many employees and not enough time to negotiate individual agreements for each staff member, then that should be made clear to the employee. Perhaps in the longer term, arrangements can be made through a more distributed network at an individual manager level to manage the workload of the conversations.

Tip 5 – Consider the stress

Remember that this has been a period of increased stress levels for many people. The uncertainty, the disruption and the loneliness of COVID have in increased the day to day stress levels of many people. What we've been seeing during this time is that people are responding to difficult situations in ways that they normally wouldn't. Emotions are spilling over at a higher rate. And people may behave in ways that they wouldn't normally do.

It is important to recognise this stress and perhaps give the benefit of the doubt to staff who are coming across as particularly aggressive or demanding.

There is no doubt that there will be many difficult conversations about how much time staff members should or shouldn't spend in the office and what the new work week will look like. If there's anything we can do to help you manage these conversations. Please reach out for a complimentary consultation.

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