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The new brain drain: What if WFH tech employees don’t come back?

Commuting to an office location comes with many frustrating challenges that include long commutes, road rage, exorbitant parking rates, vehicle theft, vandalism, escalated insurance costs, unpredictable petrol costs, and vehicle wear and tear. That is a lot of reasons to be frustrated. If we attempt to avoid the previous challenges, we are then faced with inadequate and unsafe public transportation, inaccessible train stations, unsanitary conditions, creepy passengers, and trains that simply won’t function when it rains. It’s surprising that municipalities invest so little in public transportation. Imagine commuting to work in an easily accessible and secure train that is equipped with WiFi and adequate seating to accommodate the necessary capacity. How about tables and electrical outlets so that we can be productive along the way? I vote for a bar car that opens for the Friday evening commute home. Maybe Thursday and Friday. There is no question that municipalities completely missed gathering requirements from the very population that is seeking an alternative. The question at hand is, now that we have experienced the work-from-home (WFH) luxury, many within the tech industry are starting to dread the return to the office. Are we about to face another brain drain? What if our key employees don’t come back? Many employees, having had the opportunity to experience the COVID-19 imposed WFH, no longer want the stress and expense of commuting to the office every day. We need to be concerned.

WFH: The bad and the good

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Most information we Google about WFH returns articles about the many challenges we face. Seclusion, loneliness, bad WiFi access, and the grand finale of nasty or uncooperative family members, are included among the terabytes of data being produced on the negativity of the WFH experience. Another favorite is the inability to turn off our work brain. The reality is that I have yet to meet a techie who has the ability or even wants to turn off their techie brain. It’s part of the charm! It is also why most technical gurus seem to generate a side-hustle. Their current 8-to-5 experience doesn’t engage them quite enough, and so they create an alter existence to keep their active brain engaged. The challenge of disconnecting from work is not one that is of concern to most of the technical persuasion.

While this issue is one that should be gaining the concern of the enterprise, it is also getting the attention of major municipalities. We can look forward to regulatory imposed percentages of employees who must present their bum into an office seat. Consider the implication of office property tax revenue if we all simply pulled the pin and stayed home. To function under the current business process model of municipalities, we all must return to the monotony of the commute. The consideration that we might all be given an alternative was never one that was previously of concern. I won’t go so far as to thank COVID, but sometimes it takes that new and misunderstood employee to point out the obvious.

The way we were? Thanks, but no thanks

Let’s assume that there will be a percentage of our star performers who determine that they will not return to the previous work style. If we also assume that organizations will respond with an alternate WFH option, this will reduce the office footprint and the cost of office space that the enterprise will incur. The challenge is that municipalities cannot support this change without a massive business process improvement and expense reduction undertaking, which is not the business that municipalities are in. As an alternate, additional regulatory compliance will be considered to obligate organizations above a certain size or revenue cap to keep a certain area of office space. This is not a bad thing. Having an office front to present to incoming clientele is a very good thing. But again, the challenge is to keep the engagement of our top performers.

Now that we understand that the option of WFH may not be totally within our control, it the time to consider the different approaches that can be considered to keep those stars engaged:

  1. Don’t buy into the concept that “it’s not about the money.” Compensation is the first tier of importance to the technical community. The salary must be right. The tendency to offer below industry-standard salary ranges and replace it with corporate value add is not a good recipe for longevity. It might be time to revisit your salary ranges.
  2. Understand that once the base salary is correct, you cannot assume that all employees are attracted to the same value add. While some may be drawn to the addition of personal days, others may be more interested in a matching retirement investment plan. Consider having a range of offerings that might apply to a wider range of personalities and age groups.
  3. Ensure that your leadership gives employees the space and support to do the job. Micromanaging is a nasty habit, and it must be stopped.
  4. Embrace organizational change management (OCM). While this one might seem a bit out in leftfield, it really is not. One of the key, if not the key message behind OCM, is that employees need to be communicated information from the top down regarding why things are happening strategically within the organization. This includes information as to why change is important to the life of the organization, what will happen if the change is not undertaken, and the WIIFM (what’s in it for me). Also known as, how does the employee benefit from this change. It has been proven repeatedly that if key messages, as described above, are not delivered from the top down, the change or strategic initiative will fail 100 percent of the time.
  5. Have their backs. If someone has a hard day, help them. If someone makes a mistake, fix it. Don’t throw employees under the vicarious bus.

WFH: Not ending anytime soon

COVID has changed us. It has changed the way we look at work, the way we utilize technology, the way we engage our teams, and the way we integrate our work/life balance. I may even go so far as to say that COVID has changed our values. It has changed our personal values, our corporate values, and the values supported by the various municipalities in which we function. The balance of these three is in the process of being renegotiated, and now is the time for the enterprise to understand that with change comes risk. A little risk analysis and planning can go a long way, and this is a good time to remember that often forgotten rule. What we are experiencing is a paradigm shift. The WFH experience will not simply end one day and return life to the way we remember it. First of all, we will all remember the experience differently, and second, when we land in a more predictable place, our reality will have shifted just enough that our old values will no longer apply.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Louise Chalupiak

Louise is a cynical and often irritating project manager currently residing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada who is not personally responsible for anything oil sands related. She often eats popcorn for dinner and fears that her dog judges her. Special skills include milking a cow as well as the ability to uncork a wine bottle without the use of a corkscrew.

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Louise Chalupiak

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