You Want Me To Do What? “Repatriation” in the post-Covid workplace

by Stanley H. Davis

How do you “repatriate” employees in the post-COVID era when working remotely has become the routine?

Many of the millions of employees who COVID drove from their workplaces to their home work spaces are now being asked (or directed) to return. With effective leadership and support, most had made the transition to what turned out for many to be a more balanced and flexible work / life environment.

They’ve since become accustomed and comfortable with working remotely. They’ve navigated the challenges of their transitions and experienced the advantages of working from home, including the easing of childcare and eldercare challenges; the elimination of commuting agonies, time and expense; the reduction in exposure to the pandemic; and the increase in work / life flexibility. With the now approaching return to the workplace, they’re looking at reversing the last transformation, which for many was not an easy one.

For some, the approaching reversal will not be warmly greeted, as outlined in a recent study released by the Gallup organization, ‘Going Back to Work in the Office: It Has to Be Worth It’.

How do you make it “worth it”?

Where a face-to-face company environment is a good and practical approach to business – for better communications, company synergies, more effective operations, and decision-making – it also provides personal advantages for each employee, including camaraderie, visibility, synergy, and recognition. Done right, the reintegration process itself, will also build stronger bonds with employees.

As a test of leadership, a transition of staff back to the workplace may demand that business owners and executives embrace a practice of re-recruitment and give the employees a reason to stay. Openly sharing the facts and business opportunities with employees will draw many to the same conclusion as their employers. Much of their reaction will be based on fact, but that will be tempered by their personal situations and emotions.

They may not challenge the facts or the business reason, but they also may not want to give up the positive aspects of working remotely; or maybe they just won’t want to endure another change.

Leaders’ personal meetings with individuals or groups of employees could be critical to raise and address their real concerns. These conversations may also surface other options worth considering. There will need to be a template to avoid preferential or disparate treatment of individuals, while skillfully allowing for some needed flexibility.

This “repatriation” process will demand skillful leadership. Leaders need to avoid any temptation to simply mandate the return. Employee reaction could be disastrous. In response, some employees will launch their efforts to find alternative employment. The best will find an alternative. Other employers are hungry to attract new talent and your business could become their candidate pool.

Not all employees are now working remotely. Not all employees are averse to a return to the office. And, of course, it’s not all or nothing. There are effective hybrid models.

Even if remote employees initially return to company facilities, that doesn’t mean they’ll stay. They’re always free agents, and they’ve had the taste of a workplace alternative. An internal process of re-recruitment of current employees may be here for the long term. (The core of the retention issue is well captured in a song composed as US soldiers returned home from World War I – “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen paree?”)

As the repatriation process potentially creates a retention risk, it will be a consummate test of management’s skill, commitment, and finesse. It will need to be approached strategically. It will need to be implemented flawlessly.

Stanley Davis is the founding principal of New England-based Standish Executive Search, LLC.  www.standishsearch.com