A move by many businesses to have staff return to the office at least part-time is a “recipe for disaster” for a workforce that is “fatigued and fragile,” Laszlo Bock, founder and CEO of Humu and former head of people at Google, wrote in post on Fast Company.

Transitioning to a hybrid work approach, which allows employees to work some days remotely and some in the office, may prove more disruptive than the almost-overnight shift to all-remote work spurred by the pandemic in 2020, he said.

“The shutdown last year was brutal and chaotic for both individuals and businesses, but it was also a unifying moment,” he said in the post. “We faced fear and uncertainty together. We all ran out of yeast and toilet paper at the same time. We were forced to rally and lean on each other with a common purpose: Stay healthy, take care of each other and keep the business going so we’ll have jobs when this is over.”

Bock says asking employees who have gone through so much in the past year and a half to again adjust to a new work scheme and new expectations will be damaging for both staff and businesses.

‘A staggered, disjointed process marked by uncertainty’

This “fatigued and fragile workforce” will “collide with a senior leadership team that is keen to get back on track and resume a trajectory of rapid growth. This is a recipe for disaster, and it’s critical that senior leaders, managers and HR teams build a plan to address the vulnerabilities in their teams,” he said.

Bock cited other factors that will make the return to office work more challenging.

“For employees, it will be a staggered, disjointed process marked by uncertainty,” he said. “Different regions will open up at different times, and some may be forced to close again temporarily. Workers will return to unfamiliar surroundings, with masks, Plexiglass screens and hand sanitizer, wondering if their coworkers are vaccinated and how they should greet them.

“This is anything but a unifying experience, and it comes at a time when many people are mentally and physically drained after more than a year of lockdown,” Bock explained.

The CEO cited a study by the University of Chicago that showed that employees worked 30 percent more than normal during the shutdown, and also a report by Microsoft that found that work-related messages sent between 6 p.m. and midnight surged 52 percent.

“No wonder people are burned out,” Bock lamented.

Still, senior leaders, managers and HR teams can take steps to ease the transition should they require staff to return to the office on a partial or full-time basis, he said.

Here are five tips he offered in his Fast Company post:

  1. Set realistic performance goals: “With the exhaustion and uncertainty people are feeling, if you ask your teams to operate at 110 percent out of the gate, you will be let down and they will feel they have failed. Setting realistic goals can take many forms. It may be reducing sales quotas or production targets, but it should be meaningful and expressed clearly from the outset.”
  2. Lead with compassion, not empathy: “A corollary of realistic targets is leading with compassion. Show your employees that you understand what they have been through. And remember, empathy alone is not enough. People need compassion. Empathy is saying, “I know you’ve had a tough year.” Compassion is saying, “I know you’ve had a tough year—and here’s how we’re going to help.” Give people the space to get their heads back in the game.”
  3. Close the emotional distance: “Managers should organize moments of small-scale, concentrated human connection — virtual water coolers, game nights, kicking off a meeting by asking about a teammate’s weekend. These personal moments help teams stay connected, combat burnout and work together effectively when they’ve been physically apart for a long period.”
  4. Set a date to reassess your plans: “Many companies will need to change plans and revise protocols after welcoming employees back to the office. No one will get everything right the first time, and that’s fine — as long as your employees expect it. The mistake many will make is to say, ‘This is how we’ll operate moving forward,’ without providing a timeframe for taking stock and assessing how things are going. “
  5. One size will not fit all: “A one-size-fits-all hybrid plan is not going to fix employee exhaustion or lead to a sustainable work environment. Consider what hybrid work means at the team and individual levels. The right approach for your sales team may be very different from the right approach for your engineering team. And their needs may change as the weeks pass, so plan to evolve your approach.”

San Francisco-based Humu is a human-resources software company.

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