A person sits facing a laptop with superimposed images of team members eager to stay remote

Everyone’s talking about going back to the office. Vaccines are making the global rounds. We’re finally getting the hang of this social distancing thing. There are mask mandates and hand sanitizer everywhere. After a year of uncertainty, we, as humans, still understand the value of meeting face to face.

But that doesn’t mean everyone wants to. And the lingering pandemic isn’t always the reason why employees want to stay remote.

Team leaders need to navigate the uncharted hybrid norm ahead. If your team is really pushing to stay remote, resist the knee-jerk reaction to push back. Their reasons might go deeper than you think.

Here are just three non-pandemic reasons your team might be asking to stay remote—and what you can do to address them as a leader.

Better Work-Life Balance

This one is obvious, but it bears repeating: most people enjoy much better work-life balance once you cut out commutes and unchain them from a desk. Our homes are usually our safety zones. Our pajamas are comfortable. We can open the windows, control the thermostat, or bury ourselves in fluffy blankets. Not to mention, the kitchen is right there.

But work-life balance isn’t just about the life part. Great Place to Work’s two-year study of 800,000 employees revealed what we’ve all suspected: that people working from home are at least as productive as they are in the office. Many have even shown increased productivity. It’s hardly surprising that employees who feel more productive at home want to stay remote.

What Leaders Can Do

Leaders often find themselves in a tough spot when employees push against company policy. Often, it’s not you but your own boss who’s pulling the strings, and his boss above him, and so on. Your team may feel like you’re not fighting for them, or even that you’re ignoring the perfectly valid points they make about productivity from home.

  • Start with as much transparency as you can. As a leader, you’re a conduit to communicate the company vision and mission to your team. Make sure you explain the reasons behind the decision—if you don’t know them, seek them out.
  • Ask your team what they need. It’s your responsibility to help the transition back to the office go as smoothly as possible. Is there anything boosting their productivity at home that you can replicate in the office?
  • Be an advocate for compromise. If the company’s decision to go hybrid doesn’t make sense to even you, rally your team for a proposal. Gather information about your team’s productivity (individually and as a whole) over the time they’ve worked remote. See if you can get the company to agree to compromise: maybe not three days in the office a week, but one? Or perhaps only half days to help people avoid stressful commutes?

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Psychological Safety

It’s easy to think your team just wants to stay home for the perks, but hesitation might be a sign of a much more serious problem. Women, people of color, and other minority groups often feel targeted, marginalized, or simply “other” among the office majority. For them, working remotely comes with psychological safety. So again, unsurprising they’d want to stay remote.

This could also be something that emerges as your team returns from remote work. Unfortunately, some of our biases have flourished during lockdown. As people come back together, there’s a real chance those biases will manifest as microaggressions and selective incivility.

If any of these are threatening the psychological safety of even one team member, you, as a leader, need to know about it and address it.

What Leaders Can Do

Some team members might not feel comfortable coming to you with this problem—they might not even be fully able to articulate the issue. And it’s a sensitive one, so approach it with caution.

  • Keep your ears and eyes open. Have you noticed that Greg and Hana consistently come into the office on different days? That they have tense body language, even in Zoom calls? Snippy comments? Eye rolling? None of these are healthy teamwork behaviors.
  • Show empathy to gain insight. If you do notice holes in your team’s psychological safety net, don’t just tell people to cut it out. Speak to team members individually and gently to find out what’s going on. Then ask what you can do to help.
Hands holding a smartphone and talking to multiple people, showing plural employment as a reason to stay remote
Plural employment means your team members are growing professionally and picking up skills that will enhance their work for YOU. | iStock/Irina_Strelnikova

Career Advancement…Elsewhere

This may come as a surprise to many leaders, but remote work during the pandemic has made plural employment much more realistic. If employees with multiple jobs stay remote, they’ll have more flexibility managing their time and juggling their responsibilities.

Traditionally, most companies aren’t too keen on dual careers—when you hire someone, you wanted them to work for you. But consider the benefits of having your people out there in other companies gaining experience beyond what you can provide. Consider what they’re learning, and what they can apply to their work for you. That ambition could become a real asset, as long as it doesn’t diminish their performance.

What Leaders Can Do

If your company’s employment policy doesn’t allow moonlighting, your team members may not be eager to share their “other gig” as a reason for why they want to stay remote. But there are still a few things you can do.

  • Clarify expectations. Assuming your company is OK with plural employment, you can work with HR to talk about a more flexible working policy. But also talk to your team members to ensure they understand what you expect of them. Be flexible if their needs to split their hours, etc. are reasonable. But be firm if they’re trying to commit too much time elsewhere. Fairness is key.
  • Discuss needs. If your company doesn’t allow for plural employment, you need to tread a bit more lightly. Before dragging anyone into a disciplinary meeting, try to feel out why they’re working another job. Is it about money (emergency expenses for an ill or aging family member, perhaps)? Or do they feel unfulfilled in their role on your team? Are there skills they want to acquire that your company could support, perhaps through extra training?

Leading in the Hybrid Normal

Some companies are eager to get employees back in the office, but those employees might be just as eager to stay remote. It’s easy to write this off as laziness—even selfishness—but motivations likely run deeper. And while this is a list of non-pandemic reasons to stay remote, the pandemic is still a very real, scary threat for people around the globe.

The members of your team have worked hard for well over a year in the most uncertain conditions they’ve ever faced, personally or professionally. As a leader, there has never been a better time for you to exhibit empathy, active listening, and critical thinking.

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