Return to Work: How to Use Emotional Intelligence When Employees Push Back
May 19th, 2021
As employers prepare for the challenges of a safe return to work, there’s another challenge they may face: pushback from employees on return to work plans. In partnership with Executive Coach Stacee Mandeville, MP’s HR services team offers guidance on how to leverage emotional intelligence, along with the best HR strategies, to empathetically navigate difficult conversations. Preparation is key. To prepare, ask the follow questions:
- What do you want the employee to do, and how does this meeting help them move towards this goal?
- What problem the employee has will be solved by following your recommendation?
- How does it benefit the employee to follow your recommendation?
- What is the most attractive benefit?
Here are examples of these questioning tools used in the context of two of the most common reasons employees push back on returning to the office.
Scenario 1: An employee, Julie, doesn’t want to return to work because they live with an immunocompromised person, are unsure about the safety of putting their children in childcare or school, or both.
Stacee recommends careful preparation for meetings with employees about complicated and emotional topics like this. Stacee and MP’s HR providers suggest setting up a meeting when both parties are ready to discuss the situation. The meeting should be held privately with minimized distractions. (When managing remote workers, this can be difficult. Managers should do their best to set up their computers in a quiet room and ensure that their family, roommates, pets, etc. do not interrupt.) To prepare for the meeting, Stacee suggests the manager ask themselves the questions outlined above and write down the answers for easy reference later. Here is the example in context:
- What are the benefits of returning to work? What is particularly appealing to this worker? Perhaps they will be able achieve more and increase the bonus they earn. Or, perhaps they will get to collaborate more with their team, which they may like because they’re a very social person.
- What is the most attractive benefit? Write a simple statement about it. “Julie, I want to help you achieve more in your role so that you can increase your yearly bonus in 2021.”
- What are the problems or pain points? These might be that Julie isn’t optimally productive from home, or that upper management has decided they will have to lay off any employees who do not return to work by a particular date.
- How does this meeting help move us forward? We will flesh out all of the safety protocols in place and answer any questions Julie may have.
Conducting the Employee Meeting: 2 Steps
- Manager dialogue
Once everyone has joined the zoom meeting or settled into the meeting space, the manager should begin with the most attractive benefit. They can say:
“Julie, I want to help you achieve more in your role so you can increase your yearly bonus in 2021.” They should then move into the problem. “Everyone must return to work full-time and be more productive by June 1st, or we’ll have to let them go.” The manager can then state very clearly what they want from the employee. “Julie, I’d like you to commit to returning to work full time by June 1st. I wanted to meet with you to flesh out all the safety protocols and answer any questions you may have.” Lastly, they should return to the other benefits of returning to work. “Not only will you achieve more and get a higher bonus, but you’ll get to collaborate more with your teammates, and you’ll have less distractions to deal with, like you do at home.”
- Give the Employee an Opportunity to Respond and Ask Questions
At this point, the manager can leave room for the employee to respond and ask questions. They can do so with some supportive words, like” “Julie, I’m here for you. Do you have any concerns about this? How can I ease your mind a little?” The manager doesn’t need offer anything that doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t even really have to be a negotiation (unless Julie also had a disability that affected her ability come back, in which case the ADA would apply here). What is important is that the employee feels heard, respected, and supported by their manager. If the manager is able to offer a compromise, like slower return to work or one day working remotely a week, this might also be a good outcome. If an employee is efficient and performs well, it can be worth it to make some concessions so that they are happy to stay at their job.
Scenario 2: An employee, Jim, doesn’t want to return to work and says he performs perfectly well at home. (This isn’t necessarily true.)
To prepare for this meeting, the manager should prepare by researching Jim’s record and work. If the manager believes Jim isn’t performing as well as he could at work, then the manager should find proof of a lackluster performance. Next, the manager should go through steps mentioned in scenario 1.
- What specific outcome is the manager trying to achieve from the meeting with Jim? The manager wants him to commit to returning to work full-time by June 1.
- What is the problem? Jim isn’t performing as well as he could if he were in the office. It’s also a requirement of the position that the employee report to the office in person every day.
- How will it benefit Jim if he returns to the office? Jim will become adequately productive again, perhaps some helpful tools for his job will be more readily available at the office, and there are additional perks at the office, such as free coffee and lunch on Fridays.
- What is the problem? Jim really prefers working from home, but he isn’t productive enough to warrant it. He’s also required by his position to return to the office.
- How does this meeting help move us forward? This is when the manager would discuss where Jim’s metrics are they’re lacking, how the manager can support him in reaching them, and how the manager can make Jim feel comfortable coming back to work.
Conducting the Meeting: 2 Steps
- Manager dialogue:
“Jim, I’d like to help you start hitting your required metrics again for your role. I need you to commit to returning to work full-time by June 1. The problem is, you enjoy working from home, but unfortunately, you’re simply not as productive when you do so. It’s also a requirement of your job that you report here each day. When you do return to the office, you’ll benefit in a few ways. You’ll become more productive again and meet the requirements of your job. You’ll also have easier access to the tools you need to complete your role and you’ll enjoy the perks of the office, like our free lunch and coffee benefits. Do you want to further discuss how to address the weaknesses in your metrics, how we can support your improvement, and/or how else I might help you feel comfortable coming back to work?
- Give the Employee an Opportunity to Respond and Ask Questions
If Jim disputes that he’s not productive enough from home, it will be important for the manager to have concrete examples to respond with. These should be fact based and neutral. There should be no blaming and the manager should assume good intentions from Jim. The ideal outcome is to keep the conversation feeling positive and focused on the manager supporting Jim in meeting the requirements of his role. This is likely to diffuse any negative emotions from Jim. Some other phrases that can be utilized to defuse the situation are:
- “I understand how you feel.”
- “Other people feel this way, too.”
- “We really value you as a member of our team. We hope you’ll return to your job.”
- “How can I help you feel more comfortable about this?”
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