Flexibility and six types of milk: how to make returning office workers feel welcome

There were six types of milk to order, as well as supplies for Friday night drinks.

After almost a year working from home, employees of digital marketing agency TAG Direct returned to a fully stocked pantry and new, more flexible office hours.

TAG Direct staff Daniella Hendler (in orange) and Lexie Mand (sitting on table) join colleagues back in the office.Credit:Justin McManus

The Balaclava firm’s 16 staff joined thousands of Melburnians returning to the office last week, as the state government eased working-from-home restrictions for 50 per cent of the private sector and 25 per cent of public servants.

Most hadn’t been to their office since the government ordered people to work from home in the city’s first coronavirus lockdown last March.

TAG Direct’s Zoe Goodhardt developed some helpful initiatives to welcome staff back.

“We want our staff to feel happy and excited to be back in the office … people have been so bored working at home during the lockdowns,” she said.

First, a spreadsheet was sent around asking staff what they would like in the office pantry and fridge. The shopping list included six types of milk, snacks and Friday drink orders.

“This is a small output for our business, but the benefit will be far greater,” Ms Goodhardt said.

The company also changed its core work hours to 10am to 4pm. Meetings take place during these hours and staff can complete their day’s work either before or after.

This allows time for school drop-offs, gym classes, walking the dog or simply sleeping in.

“In 2020 staff have enjoyed greater flexibility and we want them to feel they can still have this,” Ms Goodhardt said.

Only 7 per cent of respondents to a poll conducted at the end of last year said they preferred to work solely from the office.Credit:Joe Armao

Other workers have had less positive experiences.

One woman who works at an accounting practice has found her boss is more rigid about work hours than before the lockdowns.

“After I returned to the office I needed to have a few hours off to take my hubby to a medical appointment. I suggested working from home on that day and my boss’s response was ‘No, once we have returned to the office, you can’t work from home any more,’ ” she said.

“Needless to say, I am currently looking for a new job.”

In a Roy Morgan poll for the City of Melbourne completed at the end of last year, only 7 per cent of the 503 CBD workers surveyed said they preferred to work solely from the office.

Thirty-two per cent said they would rather work mostly from home and 42 per cent would like to work regular days at home.

Before COVID-19, only 17 per cent of CBD workers routinely worked from home.

But most of the people surveyed said they were willing to return to their workplace, as they missed the routine and social interaction.

Organisational psychologist Michelle Pizer works with many organisations in the CBD.

She acknowledges it would be ideal if all employers could provide flexible working arrangements, but said it was often not practical from a management perspective.

She is finding that some staff are reluctant to return, whereas others “are dying to get back to the office”.

Dr Pizer has three main recommendations for employers.

The first is welcoming staff back with gratitude, recognising that many people worked hard to get their organisations through the lockdowns.

“There’s something very nice about saying, ‘We’ve been through something together, thank you for helping us through this time,’ ” Dr Pizer said.

This could include a back-to-work kit or something nice on each desk – a note, a personalised mug, or a mask and hand sanitiser with the company logo.

Dr Pizer said it was important to include staff who were still working remotely.

Her second recommendation is scheduling one-on-one meetings with each team member to reaffirm how important they are and to ask about their career plans.

“A lot of people spent time reflecting on their jobs in 2020, including what role work plays for them and where they want to go,” she said.

Her third recommendation is implementing workplace health and wellness programs.

“A lot of people are still really tired from last year. We could call this adaptation fatigue. People are just so tired of having to adapt to all the changes,” Dr Pizer said.

Wellness programs should be targeted to suit staff and focus on all aspects of good health, including food, mood, movement and rest.

Dr Pizer also pointed out the importance of not forcing people to return to the office and accommodating staff who were anxious or had specific health concerns.

Her suggestions for employees are simple.

“Be kind to your fellow workers, know the COVID-safe regulations of your workplace and stick to them, and participate in self-care to keep up your own health and wellness,” she said.

So far, the TAG Direct team are happy to be back.

“What we’ve missed in 2021 are the incidental conversations and creative energy, and that happens over a coffee and a snack, with the milk of your choice of course,” Ms Goodhardt said.

“Our people are really excited about returning to the office.”

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