Companies across South Africa are rapidly demanding a return to work of all employees, often with very little time provided for the transition. And, while there is a case to be made from the company’s point of view of getting all hands physically on deck again after the great office exodus of 2020, leaders should be aware of the consequences of a top-down approach.

This is according to Advaita Naidoo, MD: Africa at Jack Hammer Global, who adds: “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,” she believes.

“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 circumstance 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,” she says.

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 the way forward 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.

“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.”
There are essentially three scenarios awaiting companies following a top-down approach at this stage: losing people, developing a toxic workplace, and failing to attract good people down the line, Naidoo says.

“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.

“For more than two years, companies were able to get the job done while employees continued to pull their weight and more from home. So, looking at it from the point of view of the employee who now must return to the office, it is not unreasonable for them to question why it is suddenly again necessary for everyone to be physically at their desks from sunrise until sunset. Adding resentment on top of existing stressors is a sure-fire way to turn the workplace toxic, leading to reduced productivity, absenteeism, loss of motivation and a negative work environment.”

Naidoo says it is essential for companies at this juncture to:

  • Communicate how the office is going to be a place of purpose going forward (as opposed to employees needing to be there… just because);
  • Allow sufficient time for employees to make new arrangements (because circumstances and logistics have changed for many people);
  • Consider hybrid options and continue to allow flexibility where possible and appropriate;
  • Consult sufficiently and substantially; and
  • Continue to provide support services and check-in sessions as was done during the pandemic.