Hazard Ahead: Staffing and Retention in a “Hybrid” Workplace

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As employers consider bringing their teams back into the office, they’re thinking about safety, legal compliance, technology, equipment. But what might not be on their minds? Employee engagement and well-being. And that’s a big mistake. 

It’s a dangerous fallacy to assume that the employees you sent home in March 2020 are the same ones coming back into the office, even part-time.

For most people, the pandemic has changed us. We’ve experienced shared trauma. We’ve borne sustained levels of sky-high anxiety. We’ve gotten up close and personal with our core values, confronted our life choices, and have had nowhere to escape for even mild reprieve — except for maybe into our wine glasses.

Meanwhile, the transition to virtual work has allowed people to develop norms of near-unlimited connectivity and productivity. I’ve heard from more than one client that they’ve been billing at or beyond capacity (like way beyond capacity) for the past year.  

We’re working all the time, flying around with multitasking fervor, as we juggle not just our work responsibilities but also family obligations and things like, well, showering. So, sure, we’re making it work, but we’re burning out fast. Adding a daily commute, childcare logistics, and the insult of nonelastic pants might just send us over the edge.

These new patterns of behavior and thoughts can’t be dismissed as temporary. They’re here to stay and must be thoughtfully considered as employers plan for office reopenings.

How To Make It Work

There’s no universal or perfect solution to this post-pandemic problem. But I’ve been offering the following three steps as a starting place for professionals in the Fringe network: 

  • Talk to your people. Spend time gathering data, either in one-on-one conversations, small groups, or an anonymous survey. Listen to your employees’ needs and goals. Help them articulate their emotional limitations, which may exist just beyond their sphere of self-awareness with their already overburdened cognitive loads. Don’t assume they know exactly what they want — asking them to make all the decisions may just be one more stressor for some people. Find the balance between unwieldy flexibility and rigid structures.
  • Educate your leaders. Our day-to-day experiences so often hinge on the unique style and personality of our team’s manager. This was true before COVID. But the pandemic has increased this dependency, giving individual leaders the power to make or break not only an employee’s career but also their spirit. Leaders who continue to ignore the human needs of their employees will contribute to staff departures that will be hard to fill in a competitive marketplace. This moment is critical for organizations to commit to more leadership and management training and also to create the systems of accountability they’ve talked about for years. The jerk boss of pre-COVID times cannot be allowed to run amok when the demand for talent is so high. People will simply leave.
  • Consider the power dynamics. Keep in mind that preferences for re-entry protocols may break down on generational lines that mirror organizational hierarchies. Employees in the Boomer generation are more likely to be empty nesters with a fondness for in-person interactions and a learning curve with technology. Gen Xers and Millennials may be more likely to have children at home, favor the work-life balance afforded by remote work, and feel comfortable with new technology. This generational divide can feel unbalanced, given that Boomers are also more likely to be in senior management positions, making the decisions about re-entry, while Gen X and Millennial workers are on the front lines, farther from the decision-making. With the annual attrition rate already sitting at 18% among law firm associates, these disparities will be critical to consider when developing your company’s approach to re-entry.

I hope these strategies help your team navigate the challenging time ahead. Please let me know how it goes, and share your own experiences! Fringe PD is also planning a candid conversation about the retention dilemma ahead:


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