19 Nov 2021 15:48 IST

Wooing back a reluctant workforce

Companies are forced to plead with employees to come back to offices.

A couple of my young colleagues, when I recently met them in person, enquired: “I hope we won’t be asked to come to the office full time.”  This is their first job and I expected them to be more enthusiastic about working in office settings.

But even as I was mulling over their reluctance, emerged a music video campaign of a large IT services major welcoming its employees back to office and painting a rosy scenario. Should we equate these come back pleas by enterprises with the desperate offers of BMW bikes to attract tech talent? Not too long ago, many large employers declared that WFH is here to stay, and some brave ones even forecasted high percentages as their future remote workforce. So, what’s changed in the last couple of quarters?

Hiring and attrition

This is not the time to be in an HR role, especially in the IT Industry. As the personal losses and anxiety related to this pandemic faded off, the pressure of recruiting for the past deficit and the future expansion has accelerated. The supply-demand friction has ensured recruiters have to interview three times the number of people and offer double the number to get their desired onboarding of tech talent. It looks like this recruiting problem will continue for a few more quarters. Now is the time to apply the line “who is left is more important than how many are left”.

However, we cannot deny the fact that organisations are losing top talent. Will returning to the office reduce high attrition? There is a strong sentiment in favour among senior leadership.

When I asked an IT CXO about the rush to get employees back to the office, he said, “It’s become easy to attend multiple interviews and get many offers while working from home. Coming to office will increase the bond with colleagues, make it more difficult to leave and reduce that distraction and privacy to attend job interviews.”

The connection

For a large part of their career, employees are quite ambivalent about their role/industry/company or pay as their context and relationship with employers keep changing. Should I be a software engineer or a sales engineer, work for large brands or funded startups and, of course, the most important part - is the pay good enough? These are questions that bother many throughout their employment journey. One of the beliefs is that returning to an office increases the connection to your role, industry and employer, and may decrease the attraction to money.

After all, we all work for our teams and bosses and have built these relationships by working in person. So the new question is: by forcing this past template, will we get the real connection?

The productivity debate

The argument against working from home is that collaboration, productivity, and innovation take a hit. Many of us cribbed that for maintenance and incremental progress, WFH is okay, but not for transformational results.

However, during the WFH regime of 19 plus months, 45 Indian start-ups became unicorns. Many start-ups are going the IPO way in India and overseas. For IT companies, their new clients’ pipeline has never been better. How did these companies achieve this feat with remote working staff?

It would take a pessimist to drub these achievements as incremental.

One of the most significant drivers of returning to office is to define and influence workplace attitude. For a long time, this attitude of the physical workplace, has also defined performance, which the employers now want to invoke. The passive infusion of how people, especially leaders, behave in the office even if you don’t work in the same team has a huge impact on the performance of the larger organisation. There is an unstated consensus amongst leaders that compared to the opaqueness of WFH, the transparency a physical space offers augurs better for organisations.

New gen

Despite all the employers’ reasons, the millennials are still not sure that full-time office work or hybrid is the next step. Almost 2 million youngsters have entered the workforce in India in the last two years, and convincing them about the utility of office will require some meaningful demonstration of this real-estate beyond cafeterias, conference rooms and gyms.

Reciprocity

The return to office context is an interesting situation of reciprocity at play. Who stands to gain more — enterprises or employees? In reciprocation what will each party get? Each believes the other party is trying to get more in this exchange.

It is now clear that the time has come for the employers to go on bended knees and woo their employees back to office.

 

(The writer is Co-Founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm.)