Companies give workers ultimatum to return to work post Covid-19 pandemic

Forcing employees to return to work increases the risk of losing them, says Advaita Naidoo.

Companies across South Africa are hurriedly demanding that employees return to work without affording them enough time to prepare for the transition.

Leadership expert Advaita Naidoo says while there is a case to be made from the company’s point of view of getting all employees back to the office following the 2020 exodus, leaders should be aware of the consequences of a top-down approach.

“The US and a number of other countries around the world are feeling the effects of the so-called Great Resignation – the phenomenon whereby vast swathes of employees simply quit their jobs instead of returning to the office. But the socio-economic environment in South Africa means that while some people are indeed quitting, most don’t have the luxury to do so.

“That does not, however, mean that return to work mandates at short notice will not negatively impact workplaces here – it will just impact in different ways,” says Advaita.

She says in South Africa, companies face a real risk of the rapid call-back impacting on their bottom line. “We are already fielding calls daily from highly sought-after professionals who are not prepared – through choice, changed circumstances or both – to return to the way things were before Covid. So while employees might not actually resign, the reasons for them wanting to do so will remain and compound.”

Companies might consider it their prerogative to mandate employees to return to work without delay, but they will be doing themselves a disservice if they don’t pause, reflect and strategise before doing so, says Naidoo.

“The reality is that after two years of pandemic fight-or-flight survival, employees are tired, demotivated, stressed, worn out, fearful of the future, straining because of the rising cost of living, and still dealing with the fallout from Covid’s impact on their lives and families, to name but a few of the issues facing most people at the moment,” Naidoo says.
She adds: “One only has to look at the real-life impact of the return-to-work ultimatums on social media forums on the part of desperate employees who simply can’t adapt and change their lives with short notice, to understand that just because companies can make this demand, it doesn’t mean they should.”

If companies follow the top-down approach, they run the risk of losing people, developing a toxic workplace, and failing to attract good people.

“A tremendous amount of goodwill was built up during the pandemic, with companies facilitating work-from-home arrangements. The levels of teamwork and pulling together hit impressive highs despite the stress of the pandemic, and unprecedented levels of emotional support and ‘keep in touch’ initiatives ensured the mental wellbeing and cohesion of teams,” Naidoo says.

She says companies need to acknowledge that we are facing a period of transition, and that time for adjustment and consultation must be allowed – in the interests of their employees, but also in the interest of the company.

“In addition to addressing the challenges around motivation for current employees, it is also necessary to consider the company’s ongoing ability to attract talent – many of whom now won’t look twice at a company that doesn’t consider the employee experience and which allows no flexibility. If a company isn’t considering the employee experience, they will not only strain or even fail now, but also in the future.”