Return to the workplace and employee engagement

Q:  For many years, like many other workers, I had to commute to work. My commute is about 45 minutes long.  Then COVID hit and we all went remote.  I was able to squeeze in another 30 to 60 minutes of productivity per day.  Now my boss wants us to all return to the workplace.  It is maddening since we were able to keep the company afloat for over two years.  The company is doing just fine!   I am annoyed, because I was able to get my son off the bus at 2:30pm, take a 20-minute break and then my wife would take over until the end of my workday, since she gets home earlier from work.  At work, I used to take a 60-minute lunch.  I am so annoyed, I really want to give just what is expected, no more, no less.  I won’t give the extra five or so hours per week.  Are you seeing this elsewhere?


A: The return to the office challenge is a messy one.  Each business is unique.  Some professional services firms can operate effectively with employees working from home.  Some manufacturing organizations cannot.  Some roles can be performed remotely, like a software developer, while other roles cannot, like an assembler.

I think many companies are offering many more options than several years ago.  Most of our clients are offering some type of hybrid work arrangement, or at least flexible work hours.  As an example, some may offer a 7:00am to 3:00pm work schedule with Fridays remote.  Or a compressed 4/10, which means four days per week and 10 hours per day.  Others offer Tuesdays through Thursdays onsite, and Mondays and Fridays remote. It is important that there is some consistency in these offerings though.  It would be unwise to offer them just to leaders and not to others within the organization.  One of our clients was recently struggling with how to offer a hybrid schedule to a receptionist.  They figured it out.  She was offered Thursday and Friday to help with administrative tasks and others covered her shift on Thursdays.  The employer realized that they didn’t have enough in-person visitors to require a receptionist on Fridays.  The pandemic changed our workplaces for sure.  The egg has been cracked and it will be a significant challenge to return to the uncracked egg.

In smaller organizations, it is more of a challenge, but not impossible.   Some of our smaller clients are also brainstorming creative options with their employees.  Retail and hospitality tend to be the most challenging industries with respect to remote work.

The behaviors you are describing may fall under the “Quiet Quitting” trend.  In short, quiet quitters are doing exactly what is required of them.  As you said, “no more, no less.”  Some employees may be adjusting their workplace habits for a number of reasons.  These reasons may include an employee who has started their own business on the side, or they are stressed out especially in this post-COVID world.  Or they know that they can give minimal effort, because right now employers are struggling to hire and retain talent.  Quiet quitting is often seen as a symptom of poor leadership skills.  Engagement is suffering.  Employees are less invested and less interested in their company’s efforts.  In many cases, experts believe this starts with the management team.  If the management team is not engaged, often employees are less engaged. In Massachusetts, our unemployment rate is hovering around 3%.  If you try to buy a cup of coffee or a dress in a mall, you will likely see a help wanted sign.  The pendulum won’t be on the employee-candidate side forever.  However, my prediction is that this will continue until early 2023 at least.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.