Going back to "normal" after the pandemic isn’t as simple as heading back to the office. After a year of home-working in isolation, workers are being asked to rub shoulders with no real idea of what each other might be dealing with.
The coronavirus outbreak was once labelled a great equaliser, but the impact of COVID-19 has fallen unevenly and unequally on society. For some, the transition to remote work has been a silver lining of the crisis. For others, working from home has meant trying to look after children or dodging housemates while muting Zoom (ZM) calls.
While some have enjoyed the extended time at home, others have found it isolating and exhausting. People have lost loved ones, fallen ill and been left with the lasting effects of COVID-19 infection.
With this in mind, employers need to be wary of throwing people back together without careful consideration of their needs, to avoid creating a resentful workforce.
“As businesses start to reopen, employers must keep on the lookout for issues that could arise among staff,” says Kate Palmer, HR advice director at the employment law and HR firm Peninsula.
“For example, some may be bitter that they worked throughout the pandemic while others were furloughed, which they could view as staff being given a free holiday. Others still could take issue with having to stay in the workplace while other staff have been able to work from home.”
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Resentment among staff can lead to problems with morale, engagement and job satisfaction, which ultimately impacts productivity and the bottom line. However, some employers are keen for people to return to their physical workplaces as soon as possible. So what can leaders do to avoid feelings of resentment among workers?
To avoid widespread resentment, managers need to drive positive change with good communication. Ensuring employees are heard and understood — especially regarding their needs post-pandemic — is key in creating a healthy atmosphere at work. If a member of staff is unhappy with having to return to work, it is important to take their situation into consideration and to try and reach an agreement that benefits both employee and employer.
However, it is also essential for people to remain professional - even if they’re feeling resentful. “Employers should remind everyone in the workplace of what amounts to acceptable conduct,” Palmer says. “This has been a hard time for everyone, regardless of whether they had to stay at work or not, and employees should be encouraged to be more understanding of this.
“If there are instances of misbehaviour of this nature, disciplinary action should be considered if necessary. Anyone who comes forward should have their concerns listened to; failure in this regard could lead to employees becoming very disillusioned in their role.”
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While some issues may require a formal response, such as an investigation and disciplinary procedure, it may be that disputes between employees can be resolved informally.
“Staff could be asked to put forward their issues and allowed to discuss them in a controlled environment. However, this will depend on the facts; serious accusations, such as bullying or discrimination, should always be dealt with formally,” says Palmer.
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It’s also important to remember that over the next few months, a degree of uncertainty still surrounds the pandemic and staff may respond to this in different ways. “To this end, they should be encouraged to use the company’s Employee Assistance Programme, if it provides one, to discuss any personal or professional issues they may be having,” she adds. “This could help to dissuade them from taking their concerns out on each other.”
Employers must also make sure they are not favouring employees for certain things, such as the ability to work flexibly going forward, regardless of whether they have been on furlough or worked throughout the pandemic. Such an action could lead to accusations of favouritism, have a significant impact on employee morale and, potentially, lead to them seeking alternative employment.
“The biggest challenge that companies face moving towards a hybrid, or what we like to call dynamic workplaces, is ensuring it doesn’t create ‘haves and have nots’ - people who have an advantage in their career progression because they are networking in person vs those who don’t come into the office,” says Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer and co-founder at the employee engagement firm 15Five.
Although returning to the office may be inevitable for some workers, it’s important to give people a say in the way they work. “The COVID pandemic will be with us for quite a while longer and some people, typically women, have been hit much harder with double duty child care
obligations along with work,” Metcalf says. “Be sure to understand the unique circumstances of each person and help them craft a plan that fully supports their lives and helps them do their best work.”
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