A few years ago, I worked with a colleague who had a common compulsive behavior trait. A germaphobe, he would clean his workspace and computer keyboard with disinfectant wipes several times a day and immediately squirt antibacterial sanitizer in his hands after meeting or shaking hands with someone. He would avoid any colleague who came to work with a sniffle or cough.
This colleague, whom we gently teased at the time, is now our global role model. His quirky behavior has turned into the gold standard of safety in the workplace.
But what this transition from quirky to common reveals is how firms must constantly and sometimes very quickly adapt to the changing fundamental human needs of employees. And the road for employees to either stay working from home post-pandemic or transition back to their workplace needs to be built on a new paradigm of research and dialogue. This model must meet employees’ varied and rapidly changing needs while still staying focused on business strategies.
What does this mean in action? The first step is to throw out the belief that your annual employee engagement survey with 80 questions is enough. Such an annual benchmark can still be a tool for the company, but the new approach must target employees’ views more frequently, especially in the coming months. Taking monthly or at least bimonthly pulse checks is in order, and research must be dynamic, asking employees questions that are specific to the changing news and norms regarding the pandemic. Well-designed, dynamic research will be the basis for building a back-to-work plan that really works.
Some companies are already doing this. A pulse survey can reveal unexpected problems employees currently face in their home work situations. According to Leesman, a global workplace benchmarking organization, 90% of employees in late August said that two of their top three work-from-home needs were a desk or table and chair, the third being good Wi-Fi. Yet only 63.6% were satisfied with their home desk and only 56.5% with their home chair.
Employees with a nonspecific work-at-home location, such as a dining-room table, were less satisfied (56%) compared to those with a dedicated workroom or office (89.3%).
If working from home becomes the new post-pandemic paradigm, allowing employees to retrieve their ergonomic office chair for home use is one step companies need to consider. Some companies are paying for ergonomic workstations at home. These expenses may be offset when some employees permanently work from home, thus lowering the future overhead cost of real estate.
Beyond employees’ physical needs, well-designed research can reveal unmet emotional needs. According to Leesman, more than 82% of employees say they feel their home environment enables them to work productively, yet only 65.8% say, “when I work from home, I feel connected to my colleagues.”
Many say they miss seeing colleagues at work, but will that desire diminish when they return to a very different office environment? Will strict safety protocols limiting employees’ human interaction make work at the office less appealing than they had hoped? New impediments may include plexiglass installed atop cubicles that eliminates friendly over-the-wall chats. Cafeteria restrictions may require employees to order boxed lunches and eat alone at their workstation rather than with colleagues at a cafeteria table or break room. Temperature checks and multiple cleanings of workstations each day may add up and drive employees back to their home offices. Building virtual coffee breaks into the workday or offering online happy hours might become the new normal for creating the friendly human connection employees crave.
Leaders often have the mistaken belief that they know their employees so well they can accurately predict how they will respond to survey questions, and thus choose not to do them. But the pandemic has exposed this error, with many now surprised to learn employees don’t feel safe and are not ready to come back. Some leaders’ preconceptions may turn out to be right, but every prediction needs validation through well-designed research and evaluation before any action that affects employees is taken.
Research alone is not enough; it must be part of an ongoing, structured two-way dialogue with employees. Continuous and responsive communications are critical. This means that when you ask employees for their thoughts, you respond by telling them what they told you and what steps you’re taking based on their input. This shows them that you’re listening and management is ready to respond.
Ultimately, your success will be measured by how well employees adjust to changes and whether they believe the company is putting their well-being first. Regularly asking employees whether they are receiving the information they need creates a feedback loop that builds trust and engagement that is sometimes worth more than any one specific action you take.
Paul Kelash is a partner with the strategic consulting firm Taurus Solutions specializing in research-based change management.