COVID-19 has sent most companies into a tailspin, forcing teams around the world to explore remote setups on a wider scale than ever before. Our company was no exception. As vaccines became available, though, we had a choice about whether to let people stay at home or bring them back to the office. Ultimately, we opted to return to our facility, and for us, it was a smart move.
Working From Home Worked…Until It Didn’t
When the pandemic hit, I was willing to give the work from home model a try. And at first, things went really well. People were excited. They worked late hours, and we had an absolutely stellar productivity level.
But after about two or three months, we could tell that the honeymoon phase of everybody being home was over. All of a sudden, everybody seemed burned out. I started to hear about how stressed out they were. People talked about wanting vacations, even though being home was supposed to be great, even though they all knew they couldn’t really fly to tropical destinations or anywhere else. People even left negative reviews for the company on Glassdoor, and our attrition rate climbed. They’d never said those kinds of things or jumped ship like that before, so why were they saying them and leaving now?
We felt an urgent need to get the team back into our building. We didn’t want people to be unhappy, and we wanted to keep our employees. We’d never told our workforce they wouldn’t come back, so we wanted to end the limbo, be clear about our intent, and make the return happen.
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Making the Transition Happen
To start the process, we set a back-to-office date of July 1 based on the availability of the various vaccines. We knew that date would afford people enough time to receive a full course of the vaccine, regardless of which version they opted to get. We didn’t impose a vaccination mandate, but we encouraged people who were scared about coming back to get vaccinated. We tracked when people got their shots as well as which version they got, and we gave fully vaccinated people pins to wear to show that they were OK not to mask if they didn’t want to, based on the CDC guidelines in place at the time. By July 1, our vaccination rate was 70 percent, and that continued to rise to about 86 percent.
Eventually, though, the Delta variant hit. Because of the new risk and contagion level that variant presented, we decided to go ahead and mandate vaccination by September 1. We allowed religious and medical exemptions, provided that workers gave us a note from their doctor or pastor. Overall, we lost three employees who didn’t want to come back to the office, and another three who refused the vaccine without a proper exemption.
Did we want to lose those six workers? Of course not. But the sacrifice was small in terms of the entire workforce, and in the end, it made us a better company. We knew we had people who really wanted to be there and were on board with and understood our views.
Naturally, some initial hesitancy accompanied people’s return to the office. People had real logistical and safety concerns, like whether they could get a babysitter or how we would ensure sanitation. But in just two or three weeks, their apprehension faded. People reacclimated and became comfortable being in our space again. The negative Glassdoor posts stopped. Morale went up and people were excited about their work again. We believe that happened because they were able to get to know new hires face-to-face, weren’t juggling or straddling boundaries as much as they had been doing at home, and had a chance to engage in everyday, spontaneous conversations that, unlike a lot of videoconference meetings, weren’t just about business.
Whatever You Do, Believe in It
Given these positive results, we felt confident that bringing our people back to the office was the right choice in terms of mental and social health. And because we took care to follow health protocols that were probably more stringent than what most workers imposed at home, we felt that being in the office was probably safer than keeping them remote.
You might find that your experience or circumstances are very different from ours. If staying remote or hybrid works for you, that’s fine. But in making our decision and transitioning, we believed in what we were doing and didn’t move the bar. The larger lesson is, no matter what choice you make as a leader for your company, be firm and consistent in it. With a clear boundary or articulated path, your team will know exactly what standard you expect, and they’ll never question when, where, or how high to reach.