The pandemic and the lockdowns are coming to an end…finally!  Companies are making arrangements for employees to return to the workplace.  Vaccine mandates are being eliminated.  Restaurants are gearing up for more in person dining.  Limits on gyms and bars are being lifted.

So, what’s the problem?  The problem is that everyone is still in their cocoon.

During the pandemic we all grew accustomed to staying at home.  The politicians and medical professionals told us to isolate, stay in our bubbles, and don’t interact with others.  During the winter months it actually became comfortable.  We could hide and grow complacent knowing we were all doing our part to keep us and others safe.

But life isn’t about being comfortable.  It is about growing.  It is about getting out there, meeting people, and engaging with others.  It is about taking risks.  Are we ready?  I’m not so sure.

Not Quite a Return to Normal

During the fall term the post-secondary institution where I teach opened up for in person learning.  Students hadn’t returned to the classroom since March 2020.  Many hadn’t seen their friends and classmates for over a year.  Suffice to say it was an enlightening experience.

My one in person class started with a reduced complement of 28.  We ended up with about 20 by the time the term ended.  If anything could go wrong during the term it did.  Equipment malfunctioned.  At least six in my class were working full-time hours.  Attendance was sporadic.  A number suffered accidents.  Assignments completed on time were a rarity.  Several students experienced unusual personal and familial problems much higher than normal.  Levels of stress were high.

Suffice to say the in-class learning experience was challenging.  I thought that we would all just pick up from where we left off.  That was certainly not the case.

The re-opening of businesses and return to work will present employers with significant employee retention and motivation challenges (Photo courtesy of Tim Mossholder at Pexels)

The re-opening of businesses and return to work will present employers with significant employee retention and motivation challenges (Photo courtesy of Tim Mossholder at Pexels)

Get Ready for Some Big Surprises

When things re-open and life gets back to normal businesses are in for a massive shock.  Here’s my guess on some of the things they can expect from their employees:

1) What do we do here again?  Working from home over a prolonged period of time isn’t the same as being in the office.  Certain tasks or activities that were once completed have been forgotten.  At the credit union where I am a customer, I used to have an amazing CSR who would routinely remind me of something coming due, or a new product offering.  She received a promotion in late 2020.  No one calls me anymore with reminders.  The little courtesies and niceties we could expect before the pandemic have been forgotten.  Institutional memory has been lost.

2) Where’s my promotion?  Employees who have been toiling away in relative obscurity, and showing commitment and dedication throughout the pandemic, will be expecting something in return.  In many cases “something” will involve a higher job or classification, a promotion, or at the very least, some form of career advancement with more challenging work.

3) Show me how much you appreciate me.  Hand-in-hand with the desire for a new, expanded role will be an expectation of better pay….much better pay!  Inflation is now running at 5%, the highest since the early 1990’s.  Employers will need to dig deep if they expect to keep their employees happy, let alone retain them.

4) This job isn’t quite what I want anymore.   While working in isolation employees have had time to reflect on their life, their career, and their future.  The more enterprising ones have used the time off to take courses and upgrade their skills.  Others have evaluated their personal and professional circumstances, and investigated alternate employment opportunities, sometimes involving dramatic changes in residence and/or lifestyle.

5) So long.  It’s been nice knowing you.  Those with ambition and talent who feel unappreciated or unrewarded won’t be staying with you for very long if they feel unrecognized.  Turnover is going to go up significantly.  Just look at the exodus of nursing and health care professionals if you need corroboration of this assessment.  Restaurants in some cities have experienced turnover in excess of 80% in their wait and cooking staff.  High turnover means more time spent in re-training, a lack of customer service consistency, and a longer time “getting up to speed”.

6) That work from home thing was actually pretty good.  When employees started working from home at the start of the pandemic it was challenging for many.  However, most people and organizations have adapted nicely.  Now, many people really like it.  

Parents like being able to spend more time with children.  The prospect of having lunch with the kids, or being able to nip out to the store is appealing for many, as has been the prospect of not having to drive half an hour plus to work.  That hour long train commute for many which once gobbled up precious time in an already stressed workday.  

Truth is, work from home is here to stay.  So is flextime.  Companies that think their employees are o.k. with the prospect of working five days a week in the office are in for a rude awakening.  People want flexibility, and that includes some control over their work schedules.  Business owners who can’t, don’t or won’t adapt to this new reality will find it excruciatingly difficult to attract and retain their employees.

Learning New Practices and Abandoning Others

I have written many times in the past two years on the need to pivot.  Businesses learned to do it during the pandemic.   They found new ways to do business.  They found new ways to connect with customers.  They developed new product lines.

Businesses and managers will need to do it again now that the economy is recovering.  Here briefly, are the five things companies need to do in order to traverse their business re-opening successfully:

1) Take the time to know your employees.  Your staff aren’t simply a disposable asset.  They are the most critical and vital element to your business’ success.  If you don’t support and engage with them, and in particular, take the time to understand their aspirations, wants, needs and opinions, you risk losing them.  I read a study about 10 years ago that stated the cost of replacing a middle management employee in an organization was approximately $63K.  That included advertising, recruitment, re-training, temp hiring, and lost productivity.

2) Working from home isn’t goofing off.  Had this pandemic occurred 15 – 20 years ago chances are most businesses would not have survived.  We would have suffered an economic collapse akin to the Depression in the 1930’s.  Simply, technology enabled employees to weather this economic storm and work from home while socially isolating.  It was the tool that allowed companies to survive.

Now that things are returning to normal working from home is routine.  Whether it is one day a week or five days is a function of business needs, but in many occupations this is possible.  Sadly, there are many troglodytes out there, like a former boss, who thought that anyone working from home was goofing off.  This outdated thinking is what keeps many enterprises mired in the past and unable to transition.

3) Take the temperature of your team.  More than ever managers need to continually survey their workforce to evaluate their perceptions, opinions and thoughts.  Problems that go undetected, unspoken or unresolved fester and worsen.  Workplace issues are a major source of employee dissatisfaction.  In a competitive environment, and in a social media connected universe, your business and operations can’t run the risk of alienating existing or potential employees.

4) If it isn’t broken then at least monitor its condition.  I am the least mechanically inclined person you will ever meet. I can do gardening.  I can paint well.  My masonry skills are passable.  However, that is about the extent of my meagre handyman talents.  The thought of using a drill, an electric saw, or anything mechanical, scares me to death. That being said, I check things in my house regularly.  If something doesn’t look right, or work properly, I make arrangements to get it fixed.

The same is true of a business.  Ignoring problems doesn’t make them disappear. This is especially true for your most valuable asset.  If you hear of problems, or suspect something isn’t right, then ask questions and investigate.  You owe it to yourself and your team.

5) Be Flexible.  Economic and market trends change rapidly. As we saw during the pandemic, the ability of businesses to be flexible and adapt contributed to their resilience and allowed them to survive.

What does being flexible mean in practical terms?  It means re-designing jobs and transitioning employees to new opportunities that arise.  It means investing in new technology, as well as re-training for your employees.  It means keeping abreast of changing developments in your industry, and adapting where necessary.

A Final Thought…

The next few years should be interesting as we transition from under the pandemic umbrella.  It has been a challenging time for many.  Some people have weathered this storm better than others.  What will be critical is whether, as a society, we can learn from past mistakes and adapt to new ways of doing business and interacting with others.  Time will tell how well we have survived this storm.