‘Firms enforcing return-to-office ultimatums risk losing future top talent’ – executive search firm

Enforcing return-to-work ultimatums could result in a company not only losing good employees and developing a resentful, toxic workplace, but also in failing to attract quality talent down the line.
Enforcing return-to-work ultimatums could result in a company not only losing good employees and developing a resentful, toxic workplace, but also in failing to attract quality talent down the line.
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The saying "you get what you pay for" does not only apply to purely economical transactions, but to attracting quality employees.

For these workers it's not only about attractive pay, according to Africa’s largest executive search firm, but about the company culture and how return-to-office policies are implemented.

“In South Africa, companies face a real risk of the rapid call-back impacting on their bottom line," says Advaita Naidoo, MD of Africa at Jack Hammer Global.

"We are already fielding calls daily from highly sought-after professionals who are not prepared – through choice, changed circumstance or both – to return to the way things were before Covid-19."

“So while employees might not actually resign, the reasons for them wanting to do so will remain and compound,” she warns.

The world has been changed by Covid-19, and will never be the same again – a fact that employers need to reconcile themselves to.

“Here and now, in the second quarter of 2022 as another shift is happening, it would be ludicrous to consider reverting to the leadership status quo of January 2020. Everyone who will be returning to the office has been changed by the past two years.

"For some, the impact was not majorly life-altering despite them no doubt experiencing all the fears and emotions the world shared. For many others however, their whole lives have been turned upside down," she says.

“They would have made new arrangements for childcare, they may have been forced to move, perhaps they have divorced and now no longer have the support of a partner who can help out with admin and logistics, they may have lost loved ones, they may have lasting mental or physical health issues, and so forth. The variations are legion and impossible to comprehend unless real conversations are had before one-size-fits-all rules are introduced.”

While pay gaps which reveal some shocking biases in company culture, rising inflation and salary freezes or reductions due to the Covid-19 pandemic have made many workers in South Africa feel scared and dispensable as they battle with debt and the soaring cost of living, there are those who are not scared to demand working conditions that are conducive to their productivity, including working from home.

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“The USA and a number of other countries around the world are feeling the effects of the so-called great resignation – the phenomenon whereby vast swathes of employees simply quit their jobs instead of returning to the office.

“But the socio-economic environment in South Africa means that while some people are indeed quitting, most don’t have the luxury to do so. That does not however mean that return to work mandates at short notice will not negatively impact workplaces here – it will just impact in different ways,” says Advaita. 

She says there are essentially three scenarios awaiting companies following a top-down approach at this stage: losing people, developing a toxic workplace, and failing to attract good people down the line.

“A tremendous amount of goodwill was built up during the pandemic, with companies facilitating work-from-home arrangements.

"The levels of teamwork and pulling together hit impressive highs despite the stress of the pandemic, and unprecedented levels of emotional support and ‘keep in touch’ initiatives ensured the mental wellbeing and cohesion of teams."

“For more than two years, companies were able to get the job done while employees continued to pull their weight and more from home. So, looking at it from the point of view of the employee who now must return to the office, it is not unreasonable for them to question why it is suddenly again necessary for everyone to be physically at their desks from sunrise until sunset," says Advaita.

“Adding resentment on top of existing stressors is a sure-fire way to turn the workplace toxic, leading to reduced productivity, absenteeism, loss of motivation and a negative work environment.”

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It is essential for companies at this stage, says Advaita, to: 

1) Communicate how the office is going to be a place of purpose going forward (as opposed to employees needing to be there . . . just because);

2) Allow sufficient time for employees to make new arrangements (because circumstances and logistics have changed for many people);

3) Consider hybrid options and continue to allow flexibility where possible and appropriate;

4) Consult sufficiently and substantially; and

5) Continue to provide support services and check-in sessions as was done during the pandemic. 

Companies need to acknowledge that we are facing a period of transition, and that time for adjustment and consultation must be allowed – in the interests of their employees, but also in the interest of the company, she adds.

“In addition to addressing the challenges around motivation for current employees, it is also necessary to consider the company’s ongoing ability to attract talent – many of whom now won’t look twice at a company that doesn’t consider the employee experience and which allows no flexibility. If a company isn’t considering the employee experience, they will not only strain or even fail now, but also in the future.”

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