Leon Hendra

The Case for In-Person Work: Making Human Connections

By Leon Hendra
Leon Hendra

Many younger employees need the interaction of in-person work. But to encourage a broader return to in-person work, organizations must make a compelling case for the benefits it brings employees. At the same time, they need to toss out the old office paradigm and transform to one that celebrates the new world of work.

Today’s medtech companies are faced with the same challenge as countless other businesses: How to handle a changed workforce. For many, the transition was purely coincidental due to the pandemic that forced medtech leaders to lean into remote and hybrid work, even for positions within the R&D process. The expectation was that business would ultimately revert back to “normal” when it was over. With pandemic concerns waning, businesses are pushing for employees to get back into the office despite increased productivity and performance during the remote working period.

This is being met with strong resistance from employees. What many business leaders are starting to understand is the profound impact working from home had on their employees. The past two years have been a revelation—proving that many jobs could be done remotely—leaving employers with two options: Force the return of all staff and risk them taking their experience and expertise elsewhere or maintain some form of remote work with an eye towards retention.

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Challenge Your Thoughts on Hybrid vs In-Office

Given these dynamics, justifying fully in-person work has become more difficult, and it is critical for organizations to examine why they want workers back in the office. Most leaders have a bias towards the status quo and prefer pre-pandemic working practices. Many, including those in the medtech field, question if collaboration is as effective when remote. But the decision should not rely on opinions and emotions. Instead, it needs to be an objective assessment that is based on data around everything from retention and performance to employee engagement and financial results.

For specific teams or divisions, such as those in knowledge-based roles found in regulatory and project and program management, there may not be a valid reason other than wanting the comfort of in-person supervision. In these instances, leadership should reconsider their position. Not only are hybrid arrangements popular with workers, they also provide cost savings through lower overhead expenses.

For others, such as hands on engineering and manufacturing, in-person work may be a true necessity. Unfortunately, many companies don’t do a good job of explaining why. Data combined with communicating a solid strategy can help overcome this challenge, while incentives can help attract and retain talent. Aside from pay and benefits, one important incentive is the connections made in the office, especially for young workers.

The Unique Concerns of Gen Z Workers

A recent report shows that nearly half of young adults experienced mental health decline during the pandemic’s second year. It also found that the ability to relate to and interact with others has been seriously impaired in over half of young adults around the world. With this in mind, leaders and managers need to use new approaches to help young employees adjust to an in-person workplace, some of who may be experiencing it for the first time.

Many graduates finished school in a remote learning environment and were denied the opportunity to experience in-person internships, a key factor in acclimating to an office setting. Organizations should take responsibility for introducing these new hires to a different way of working. This goes beyond showing them where the break room is located. Instead, focus on the key necessities: office hours, dress code, reporting structure, job expectations, communication style, etc. Additionally, if they will be working with remote or hybrid team members, provide a clear protocol for all parties on how to connect and communicate.

Reconsider Your Manager-to-Staff Ratio

Remote work often shielded managers from some of the day-to-day distractions of an office. They could set themselves as “away” or turn off notifications to protect their bandwidth. They could use technology tools to communicate with bigger groups. This is not always possible in-person, especially with young employees who expect more of their direct supervisors than previous generations. Not only do they need guidance about the actual work, but they may seek advice on building social relationships, understanding the broader political, social and economic world and navigating personal issues such as mental health or finances.

Organizations should re-examine how many employees a supervisor has to manage and consider hiring additional staff. This will enable them to spend more time with individual employees—not only building direct connections with them but helping their staff form better relationships with others on their team and in the organization. It might cost more in the short term, but will pay off with better retention and a more constructive in-office experience.

Prioritize Manager Training

A Gallup study found burnout among managers increased significantly in 2021, especially among millennials. A contributing factor has been the great resignation, which led to prematurely promoting employees into management roles. Stressed out and inexperienced managers lead to toxic workplaces, which can be particularly hard on young employees.

In addition to providing ongoing coaching in day-to-day activities such as managing a team and working with different personalities, companies need to specifically train managers in responding to new employee expectations. This includes going beyond scheduling regular meetings. It requires connecting them with senior leaders, mentors and peers and often helping them learn how to deal with sensitive issues such as mental health, social justice, political unrest and economic instability.

Building Connections for the Entire Workforce

The good news for companies is that once workers adjust to the idea, they can be pleasantly surprised by returning to the office. One study found that attitudes are shifting with employees discovering that being back is better than anticipated.

This was especially true of organizations that kept some of the benefits realized during the pandemic, such as flexibility. In an office setting this may include giving employees the ability to shift office hours, blend in personal activities during the workday, spend more time socializing with co-workers and take more vacation and personal days. Other strategies to help raise the appeal of the office include:

Make the office an event space. This does not mean installing foosball tables and a coffee bar. It does mean that in this new era of work, the value proposition of the office has foundationally changed. When weighing the benefits of remote versus in-person work, most seasoned employees reflect back on the pre-pandemic office. In this scenario, the office of the past typically comes up short. Organizations have to think differently about the value today’s workspace can provide to employees.

Employers who plan meaningful events and experiences are likely to overcome that value shortfall. These could be training sessions, strategy and goal setting discussions and creative activities that include how to benefit from in-office connections.

Reconsider connections. With massive turnover over the last two years, many individuals may return to work with a group of strangers. Because the old water cooler moments may not happen organically in this situation, organizations need to be more purposeful about creating connections. Mentoring helps new members and tenured staff build professional relationships while buddy systems promote social interactions between peers making office work more interesting.

Reflect on the resources you offer. With an increased focus on mental health, wellness, social issues and political concerns, organizations need to go beyond offering the basics such as benefits, workspace and training. There are opportunities to look at in-house resources to provide mental health services and address other aspects of the whole employee. Additionally, DEI leaders can guide employee resource groups and provide opportunities for workers to share and bring more of themselves to the office.

To encourage in-person work, organizations must make a compelling case for the benefits it brings employees, including fostering relationships, facilitating collaboration and opening up career advancement opportunities. At the same time, they need to toss out the old office paradigm and transform to one that celebrates the new world of work. Companies that embrace the transformation of the workplace will be in a better position to not only bring back their teams, but do so in a way that inspires connections and elevates engagement for all of their people.

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About The Author

Leon Hendra, Real Staffing Group