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Returning to Work – loyalty of vulnerable employees is in the balance

If companies fail to address the anxiety of employees returning after lockdown, they risk creating “workplace saboteurs” motivated to harm the organization. Professor Dan Cable (London Business School) and David Fairhurst (former Global Chief People Officer at McDonald’s) share a three-stage “Returnment” program to help organisations address employee fears and earn a loyalty dividend.

As the world struggles to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, employees are worried about their futures. With furloughs mounting and salary cuts spreading, many people feel vulnerable about employment and their relationship with their employers. Millions of people who still have jobs have lost their normal set of work routines and processes; many have been working under strange new conditions at home.

The easing of lockdowns and shelter in place measures will not return things to normal, and people are worried about returning to work. A recent study of over 2,000 US workers found that less than a quarter (24%) of respondents would feel comfortable returning to the workplace right now, with almost half expressing discomfort unless an effective treatment (47%) or vaccine (45%) are finalized.

Put this all together, and it means that employees around the world are feeling very vulnerable.

And when people feel vulnerable, research1 shows that how they are treated becomes very emotional and symbolic. Treat people with care at this pivotal moment, so that they feel good about the relationship, and you form strong, positive emotional bonds that go well beyond logic and rationality. Researchers have called this phenomenon “creating loyalty beyond reason”2. Conversely, if vulnerable people sense that you don’t care, or that you are treating them unfairly, it will be hard to ever win back their loyalty. They may even become motivated to sabotage and hurt your organization.

Right now, you have an enormous opportunity to earn employees’ loyalty as they return to the workplace.

Unfortunately, there is real risk too – because the same conditions that make workers feel vulnerable often make leaders complacent about employee loyalty.

Beware of complacency when people feel vulnerable about employment.

When economic conditions make employees anxious about their jobs – when employment stability is low – many leaders assume that they do not need to worry about employee loyalty. After all, employees should feel lucky to have a job when times are tough, right? And that frees us up to invest time, energy, and money in more pressing business issues, correct?

Not if you are thinking strategically.

In 2014, David– then the Chief People Officer at McDonald’s Europe – forecast in a Financial Times interview that declining birth-rates in the major global economies would lead to labor shortages on a scale that would cripple economic growth – a ‘workforce cliff’.

Many HR leaders felt the opposite – 2014 was a time of economic upheaval with rampant unemployment across much of Europe and plenty of people to hire on demand. In the years since that interview, however, countries around the world have, one-by-one, reached the cliff-edge as demand for workers has begun to outstrip supply resulting in record levels of employment and unfilled vacancies.

Covid-19 has stifled demand in the short-term, but the demographic changes that are creating the workforce cliff continue to relentlessly reduce the supply of workers. The organizations that earn “loyalty beyond reason” now, when employees feel vulnerable, will win out when the business cycle returns to growth stage and the best employees have their choice of jobs.

To secure a loyalty dividend, employers need to invest the same time and energy into the ‘returnment’ process that they did in when recruiting employees into the organization in the first place.

Stage 1. Re-Assuring:
Foster a culture of wellbeing ahead of returning to work

The best way to reassure employees is to involve them in planning new ways of working, and new business strategies, which will be implemented on their return. Proactively – and visibly – solicit employees’ concerns and ideas. Listen to, and acknowledge, their concerns with the aim of creating confidence. By engaging individuals in exploring new possibilities, shaping new opportunities, and crafting working environments, you will activate their neural ‘seeking systems’ which trigger the emotions of excitement and zest rather than anxiety and dread, enhancing both performance and wellbeing3.

Employers should ensure that, as well as focusing on the physical implications of the post-pandemic workplace (social distancing, handwashing facilities, etc.), returnment plans also include measures to support the psychological impact of returning to work in these changed circumstances. Experience of hiring hundreds of thousands of people into their first job has shown us that the stress of entering the world of work can be significantly reduced by ‘normalizing’ first day nerves before employees even arrive, through pre-onboarding conversations and online videos. A similar discussion and acknowledgment of concerns surrounding the return to work should be a key element of an organization’s returnment planning.

Finally, employers can use this pre-return period to train managers to spot warning signs of stress and anxiety in their teams. Post-pandemic organizations will need to foster a culture of employee wellbeing, which means developing people managers at every level who have the skills and emotional intelligence required to support their people. This will take time to achieve, so you need to start now.

Stage 2. Re-Onboarding:
Make the Week One experience positive, caring, and personal

The first day back after lockdown is one that employees will remember for a long time – so make those first memories positive. Where employees have been working from home, make time to recognize and celebrate what they have achieved. Where they have been furloughed, recognize the hardships they may have endured, and thank employees for the loyalty they have shown to the organization. Your overriding concern is to help employees know that you need and value them, and that you have confidence in their ability to rise to the challenges ahead.

Managers should allocate time to meet one-on-one with every employee during the Week One, to reflect on the experience of lockdown and any lessons which could be carried forwards. Review with each employee how your own management style and practices were different during lockdown, what worked, and what would be effective going forward.

Employees have experienced considerably more autonomy and freedom to craft their jobs during lockdown, which likely led them to new insights about themselves. Take time early in Week One for employees to capture the ‘highlight reel moments’ during lockdown when they realized that they were performing at their best. Ask each employee what parts of their job made them feel like they were doing what they were “made to do.” Research show that when people are asked to highlight their strengths during onboarding, they go on to deliver higher levels of performance.

These highlight reel conversations can be used to help employees re-craft their jobs around their strengths. Recrafting work not only helps employees feel a greater sense of meaning at work, but changes to workflow and processes can help the organization adapt to external conditions. These changes also offer a productive reason for ongoing discussions with employees about what is working, and how to build on the momentum.

Allocate time for employees to reconnect with their workmates. Research4 shows that when people return to work after childcare leave, re-entry works better when organizations invest strategically in connecting returners with their colleagues. Identify ways in which returning employees can interact and have fun together, creating excitement and positivity while ensuring social distancing.

Stage 3. Re-Engaging:
Make Month One about securing talent for the organization

Research5 shows that employee readiness to find a job with another organization increases following a vacation from work. It is likely this will also be the case for employees returning to work after lockdown. Once employees are settled back into the organization, schedule “stay interviews” (in contrast to “exit interviews”) with every employee. These stay interviews build on the re-onboarding meetings held during Week One, but rather than bringing lessons from lockdown into the workplace, they are forward-looking and focus on earning the loyalty of each individual.

Research shows that humble leadership6 is the best style for emotional engagement with employees. Humble leadership, in this case, means asking employees “How can I help you do your job better?” Listening for pain points that you can help remove, and innovative ways of working that you can help each employee pursue as they help the organization become more agile.

In addition to supporting individuals in the workplace, visible support of employee wellbeing in their lives outside work can foster loyalty. For example, 82% of employees feel more positive about their employer as a result of having access to the personal finance tools and skills they need to give them greater financial flexibility and autonomy.

Post-pandemic vulnerability offers the greatest opportunity for gaining employee loyalty that we will experience in our lifetimes. Fail to support the physical and emotional wellbeing of returning employees and risk an erosion of trust and spiraling employee turnover that threatens the long-term success and survival of your organization. However, successfully implement a returnment program, and you can secure workforce loyalty, accelerate business recovery, and drive sustained performance.

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