No one knows, really, what it is going to be like returning to the workplace, except those who never left. We do know two things, though, that are harbingers of what might not go well. One is that an unexpectedly high number of people are quitting in the wake of “return to work.” Second, people want more from their employer — guarantees that their health, safety, and wellbeing are being promoted.
Cristina G. Banks, Ph.D.
Director, Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, University of California, Berkeley
Alan Witt, Ph.D.
Professor, Hobby School for Public Affairs, University of Houston
Why would people want to quit a job with secure employment where their friends and professional relationships are? Reasons include the commute, loss of autonomy, bad organizational culture, job strain, and inequitable treatment. For many, it’s just not worth it anymore.
Why are they asking for more now? Millennials are leading the way in demanding a better work life. Their loyalty to an employer is paper-thin, and much of their decision to quit reflects their relationship with the boss. Also, they want a more balanced life than previous generations did at their age.
A new outlook
This is catching on with older generations, too. While working remotely, they have spent more time with their families. They assumed more personal responsibilities, exercised, and had control over their time. Despite “Zoom fatigue,” older workers rediscovered parts of their lives that had laid dormant. Many want to keep it the way it’s become.
What would make employees want to return to the workplace? Every employer of office workers should be asking this question right now. Returning to the office is not a done deal. If allowed to work hybrid schedules, many people may come to the workplace less and less often over time unless some things change dramatically.
What needs to change?
We need to put human motivation back into the equation of what makes a successful business. If you think about it, all business success comes from employees (including leadership) doing the right things, at the right time, and in the right way. Business failures stem from employees making mistakes, underperforming, taking the wrong action, or aggressing towards others inappropriately. We can “engineer” efficiency and effectiveness, but highly engineered work processes don’t always “work” for people.
The work environment and the work itself must be motivating to ensure that people can and want to do their best work. A healthy workplace does just that — it creates a physical and behavioral environment that has the potential for fulfilling basic human needs, such as autonomy, psychological safety, and fairness.
What is needed from the physical environment? To name a few needs, fresh air, noise reduction, full-spectrum lighting, well-fitting ergonomic furnishings, biophilic interior design, and purpose-centered layouts that support employee activity and physical movement are good places to start.
From the behavioral environment, we need fair and inclusive processes, human-centered technology that enhances user abilities and fits their needs, and job designs in which employees have the resources to meet job demands.
Why would an employee want a healthy workplace? Healthy workplace attributes can right the many of the wrongs of the past, putting us on a caring and respectful path. Why would an employer want a healthy workplace? Because health and wellbeing yield higher productivity. Why would a prospective employee want a healthy workplace? Because the employer embodies all the right values by placing its people first.
A healthy workplace is a good deal for everyone. Employees want these benefits. A healthy workplace is also a competitive advantage: businesses know how to match their competitors in tangible benefits, but they don’t necessarily know how to match or beat them in this nonmonetary benefit. A holistic, integrated approach is difficult to copy. Employers that recognize this competitive advantage and commit to its investment both monetarily and organizationally will be leagues ahead.