Skilled workers across the country are making their position clear: they have no desire to go back to the way things were, and they’re willing to leave their job rather than return to the office.

From an organizational standpoint, however, it’s not so straightforward. There are arguments for and against bringing people back into the workplace. Attempting to transition to a hybrid model is sure to be fraught with challenges. And for some organizations, a return to working face to face is the only way forward.

To establish a post-pandemic model for work that prioritizes productivity, a plan for employee retention is imperative. Senior leaders must be able to clearly articulate the benefit of returning to in-person work and find ways to motivate individuals within the team to endure the change. To do so, organizations need to make full use of people leaders to ensure that understanding and motivation cascades to each individual contributor.

Give meaning to the change

While the value of returning to in-person work may be clear to the senior team, it’s unlikely that everyone in the organization will find it apparent.

In the absence of information, people tell themselves stories

In the absence of information, people tell themselves stories – and those stories are rarely positive. Without a clear understanding of the benefit of returning to work, people are likely to tell themselves that it’s because they’re not trusted to do their job while working remotely. Or, that it’s because of their leaders’ own discomfort with remote work.

To combat this, organizations need to be able to clearly articulate the value of why people are being asked to come back to the office, beyond “you get to keep your job.” People need to understand how it benefits the organization, how it benefits their team, and how it benefits them personally. A client I work with, League, provides a useful example of this in their communication to employees about their plans for a hybrid model. Their Chief People Officer, Kim Tabac, has promised their people to, “strike the balance between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’ by focusing on the intersection of the employees needs for meaningful work, and a continued focus on their mental health and wellness, with the company’s focus on high performance, innovation, and connection to our mission.”

In addition to helping motivate people who would rather continue to work remotely, being clear about the value of working in-person can help to ease the pain of change for everyone in the organization. A few months into the pandemic, we asked leaders about their challenges in the remote work environment and almost one in five said their biggest obstacle was others not being open to change. By giving the change meaning, organizations can reduce this friction point and accelerate the pace at which the benefit of the change begins to outweigh the discomfort of the change itself.

Ditch broad-reaching incentive programs in favour of personalized motivation

Skilled workers are leaving their jobs in droves because they don’t want to go back to the way things were. But it would be wrong to assume that people are most motivated by having flexibility in where and how they work. There are many different things that motivate people at an individual level, as diverse as the team itself. Organizations can drive performance, reduce turnover, and facilitate organizational change by discovering each contributor’s top motivator and connecting it with their work.

We recently ran a workshop with 220 leaders at a financial services company on the subject of how to hold more effective career conversations. When we asked the leaders what motivates them in their careers, there was no consensus. A top three did emerge (interesting work, money, and meaningful work, respectively), but none showed a clear majority and only 10% said they are motivated by all three.

What this tells us is that a broad-reaching program for this group focused on interesting work, money, and meaningful work would only be a perfect fit for one in ten leaders. What’s more, a program focused on improving work fit to life would only capture the attention of a little over one in three. To effectively motivate individuals through the return to in-person work, and beyond, organizations need to shift to an personalized approach.

Leverage people leaders to put plans into action

As the soccer coach John Herdman said, “People do things for people, not things.” For organizations to successfully communicate the value of returning to work and tap into what motivates individual contributors – and therefore retain skilled workers – people managers need to be at the centre of a culture shift that makes leadership their first job.

People do things for people, not things.

Too often, people leaders feel like managing their team is a “to do” along with the rest of their job. In fact, when we asked the same group of leaders what gets in their way of having career conversations with their people, 42% told us they don’t have the time. Organizations need to give leaders a clear expectation that helping their people grow and develop is their first job, rather than something to be fit in around other tasks. By investing in people and having these conversations, that’s how the work’s going to get done. It’s not the other way around.

As the plan is set in motion, focus on three priorities to enable leaders through the transition to in-person work:

1. Encourage leaders to build relationships with their people

At the heart of all this is emotion. Whether someone would rather quit than come back to the office or whether they’re motivated in their job, all comes down to how they feel about the situation.

In order to tap into the power within emotion, leaders need to build relationships with their people and earn permission to do so. And if they’re leading a team that’s distributed or working on a hybrid model, they need to pay close attention to their relationships with the people they don’t see in person on a daily basis.

2. Give leaders the skills to coach their people

Telling leaders to find out what motivates their people is about as helpful as a basketball coach telling you to shoot a three pointer. Leaders need to understand their role as a coach; they need questioning and listening skills to open and carry out effective conversations; they need the ability to give their people clarity on what “good work” looks like; and they need to be skilled at giving recognition in ways that’s going to motivate their people.

3. Make regular career conversations a formal part of performance management – and empower leaders to connect their people with what motivates them

With the relationships and skills in place, ask leaders to hold regular career conversations with their people. Make it every leader’s responsibility to understand what motivates each individual on their team and support them in using that information to create connection points between the work and what motivates them.

Avoid the “brain drain”

Enough companies have already learned their lesson the hard way – requiring an entire workforce to undergo a significant and rapid change can lead to a drop in engagement and a rapid “brain drain” if not handled carefully. To ease the transition and retain skilled workers, engage your leaders in a culture shift that puts leadership first, gives leaders the skills they need to motivate their people, and encourages them not just to have career conversations, but to create meaningful connections between what their team does and what motivates them.