Reboarding the Revenants – Who is coming back, to what?…and Where?

20. May 2021 - Paul Blackhurst, Client Director Share

Picture extracted from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/26433798662

Do you remember The Revenant, the 2015 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Of course, you do, you have seen everything on Netflix in the last year. Leonardo’s character is mauled by a bear and left for dead. But he comes back (Revenant is French for the “returner” – usually returning from the dead). Returning from Covid isolation working might or might not be so dramatic, but certainly a few of us have been sporting haircuts like The Revenant until very recently. The significant thing is that the Leo character who comes back is not the same man that went into the woods looking for furs. The experience has profoundly changed him. We can assume that the experience of the last year or so has changed our employees.

A liminal experience for our employees

In many societies people deliberately create such experiences as a rite of passage. Such experiences are known as “liminal”. In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the completion of the rite establishes. The liminal phase has pros and cons. On the plus side our employees may have experienced:

  1. Excitement
    Liminal space is a space where change can occur. It can therefore be full of excitement and opportunity. New and good things could be coming, just around the corner. It can provide a good space where genuine newness can begin.
  2. A fresh start
    People also often say liminal space gives us a fresh start. We can put aside the things we did not like from the past situation and start afresh with a new positive outlook.
  3. Creativity and innovation
    Because liminality brings up strong emotions, a lot of creativity occurs in liminal space. Songs, artworks, and books are created to represent the strong emotions that liminality brings up.

 

However, on the negative side, they might have experienced:

 

  1. Discomfort
    Liminal spaces can be scary and uncomfortable. When we do not know what’s coming, we often feel anxious and sick in the stomach. Physically, they can also be empty and spooky, such an empty stairwell.
  2. Feeling unprepared
    Another disadvantage of liminality is that we often feel unprepared to leave it. When we are waiting for a diagnosis from a doctor, we might not want to face the reality. When we are graduating university, we might feel like it is too soon to start a job because we feel unprepared.
  3. Need for support
    Due to this discomfort and uncertainty in liminal space, many people seek help during times of transition. They could seek out professional help or look for the unconditional love and support of their family, loved ones and community during this time.
  4. Fear
    Many times a liminal space makes us afraid. This is especially true when it seems like there are many cons of passing through the threshold to the next chapter of life and not many pros.

As we welcome back our employees post-Covid we need to explore how this liminal experience has changed them. They may have re-evaluated what they want from their work life, how they want to prioritise their time, and how they want to be supported. We must not underestimate the level of fear and unpreparedness they may carry as they enter the next phase of their work life. Each revenant will need individual understanding and support whether they are all coming back to the office, partly coming back to the office, or remaining remote while colleagues go back.

 

Expecting people to come back and pick up where they left off will be unrealistic.

We cannot simply pick up where we left off

People will be exiting the liminal phase with different options being offered by employers. In terms of employer-branding, the choices we make about the options we offer will have an impact on how attractive we are to employees, both now and, by reputation, into the future. As organizations the world over face decisions about how and where to get business back to “normal” post-Covid, they need to keep in mind that they will be dealing with revenants returning from a liminal experience. Expecting people to come back and pick up where they left off will be unrealistic. Even in non-pandemic times, once people have experienced remote working it is not easy to get the genie back into the bottle.

 

Remote workers “were highly engaged, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues.”

 

For example, in 2009, forty per cent of IBM.’s workforce was virtual with the company exhorting clients that “telework” was the future. Remote workers “were highly engaged, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues.” However, in 2017, with profits falling, the company changed its position and adopted a push strategy where the choice was simple – return to the office or leave the company. Yahoo in 2012, issued an edict to its twelve thousand employees which banned working from home as an option. Coincidentally or consequently, by 2016, 30% of the workforce had left the company.

Defining the optimal post-covid workstructure

There appear to be 4 fundamental ways of dealing with the office/remote dilemma and only one of those offers real menu of choice to the employee.

  • Fully face-to-face in a physical office
  • Hybrid – but treat all the same – 3 days in and 2 days out
  • Hybrid – treat everyone individually.
  • Fully virtual

The hybrid – individual approach seems most employee-led, and some version of the hybrid office sounds like a logical post-pandemic approach which many companies will try. However, mixing in-person and remote workers presents new challenges for managers. Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School: “I’d say stay all virtual—hybrid is likely to deliver the worst of both worlds.” A hybrid company still has substantial real-estate costs, and it also must contend with the potentially serious threat to company culture posed by resentful remote workers who feel that they have been unfairly denied plum assignments and promotions and resentful office workers who bear the time and cost penalties of the daily commute (plus clothing, lunch, and coffee costs!).

 

Environmental impact should be part of the decision process.

 

Some companies will remain fully virtual. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that employees could “work from home forever” in an email of May 2020. More recently, (March 2021) Nationwide, a UK bank, told its 13000 workers that they can work wherever they want to after Covid. CEO Joe Garner has said that far from slacking, “Homeworkers are working harder” and, in fact, his biggest concern is for their well-being not their productivity.

Of course, there are many revenants who want to return to the structured life of the office with a dedicated space to work, the company of colleagues and the professional equipment they need. Anecdotally, many of them seem to be managers who prefer the controlled environment and the ability to supervise workload. Just as IBM and Yahoo before then, they cite a reduction in collaboration as the primary reason why virtual is not ideal.

Environmental impact should be part of the decision process. Carbon emissions have reduced dramatically in the last year, France saw a fall of 15% and the UK 13%, much of which was from the transport sector. Commuting by zoom has a significant positive impact on the environment and so, if organisations are serious about their Sustainability agenda, they will need to think twice about the environmental impact of re-imposing the daily commute.

 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clarify what is the purpose of “the office”

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

There remains a complex challenge for organisations to figure out if there is a positive return on investment from re-opening the doors. This calculation needs to take in all costs and benefits – financial, environmental, health and safety, reputation, employer attractiveness, productivity, and happiness. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clarify what is the purpose of “the office”. It is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a reputation as an organization that really cares for its people.

We would love to help you think through your options and to share our experiences with world-class organisations.

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Paul Blackhurst

Paul Blackhurst is a Client Director at Mannaz, with particular focus on individual and business impact. He has delivered leadership programmes in 48 countries over the last 20 years.

You can write to Paul Blackhurst at pbl@mannaz.com.