As the government eases pandemic restrictions, employers are expecting workers to return to the office. But human resource experts are warning companies to remain flexible with their back-to-the-office demands or they risk losing employees.

Employers “need to recognize people are concerned about coming back. They may be immunocompromised, or they may have immunocompromised people at home. They have very real reasons for not wanting to come back to work, so they need to respect those concerns,” said Janet Candido, a human resources specialist and owner of Candido Consulting Group, which provides HR services to 125 organizations.

“Tensions are definitely increasing between employees and employers,” Candido said. She estimates that 25% to 30% of employees are raising COVID-19 health concerns and some are leaving their jobs entirely.

Candido said some employers that had originally set up a transition period to ease employees back into the office now feel that the transition period is over and want their workers back in the office. But she urges employers to be more flexible. Unemployment is low and recruiting new talent could be difficult.

“Both sides are become very entrenched in their positions and raising tension. Employers are finding it very hard to hire at all levels,” Candido said.

To ease any brewing conflict, Candido advises employers to be compassionate and understanding of their employees concerns. She suggests setting up mental health supports and making masks mandatory in the office at the very least.

The number of job vacancies in Canada has reached a record high of nearly one million, while the unemployment rate remains low, Statistics Canada reported. The combination could make employees less hesitant to leave companies that implement strict back-to-work policies or that fail to address health concerns.

As companies come under pressure to offer higher compensation to staff and to recruit skilled workers, the national average base salary increase for 2023 is projected at 4.2% according to a recent survey from consulting firm Eckler Ltd.

A recent survey by productivity software company OSlash about the “great disconnect” between bosses and workers found that 60% of employers said they would offer employees a hybrid work schedule if they declined to return to the office. Only 20% would let employees go back to full time remote working.

Of the 800 work-from-home employees and 200 business leaders surveyed, nearly 80% of remote workers believe their employers would fire them if they said “no” to a return-to-office mandate. Meanwhile, 78% of employees surveyed said they would be willing to take a pay cut to continue working from home, with Gen Z respondents being the most willing to do so.

“There’s a massive competition for talent for Canadian employers,” said Melissa Nightingale, co-founder of management training firm Raw Signal Group. She cautioned that forcing resistant employees to go back to their pre-pandemic lives may drive away talent at a time when companies might be short staffed and when employees have “other opportunities that are often with direct competitors.”

The global shock of the pandemic has made people much more aware that anything can change at any given time, said Shimi Kang, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s psychiatry department. “People are rethinking their priorities including how they spend their time and their days. We’re seeing this play out in the ‘Great Resignation’ which has people choosing a better work-life balance,” Kang said.

Mental health concerns are another factor, said Kang. “There’s increased anxiety, many people are burnt out and need a break and there are these big existential questions. People lost loved ones during the pandemic or fear losing loved ones,” she said. “All of this makes people rethink how they spend their time. If the workplace isn’t a place of joy and connection and performance, then there definitely would be less interest in staying there.”

Source: The Star