Is your workplace struggling with a COVID-19 hangover?

April 23, 2023

On April 10, 2023, President Joe Biden signed legislation that terminates the national emergency concerning COVID-19 declared by then-President Donald Trump on March 13, 2020. This was done earlier than planned.

The COVID-19 crisis is finally over. But the consequences of this three-year pandemic linger in the workplace.

I refer to it as a “COVID hangover.”

Many workplaces are languishing, and employees, managers and employers are in high-stress mode, mentally drained and physically and emotionally exhausted.

Organizations that were formerly thriving and bustling feel as if they are on life support — every day.

If this is what your workplace is experiencing, you aren’t alone. It’s everywhere.

It turns out that working in survival mode and uncertainty for three years takes a big toll on people and workplaces.

Workplaces remain in conflict over where people work, when people work, how they communicate and accountability. And most important: The joy in the workplace seems to be gone.

During the pandemic, employees enjoyed the flexibility of telework (originally designed to be temporary), and many think they can successfully do their job fully remote from now on.

Employers respond that during the pandemic when employees worked remotely, the organization didn’t thrive, it tread water.

New college grads and people starting their careers seem to want to be on-site meeting colleagues and growing their careers, but many more seasoned workers generally don’t feel the need for social interaction and prefer to just produce work.

This has caused what might be the worst-case scenario: random hybrid. This is when employees work remotely some days but are forced against their will to work a few days in the office, but everyone isn’t in the office at the same time.

This means employees are returning to mostly empty office spaces where they spend most of their day on virtual calls they think they could just take from home. There is no energy. Just half-empty office spaces.

Employers are asking, “Where did our work culture go?”

Managers whose employees were working on-site or remotely also spent the past three years giving “grace” to many employees who were low performing — or, frankly, not performing at all. Three years of no accountability has failed to promote high-functioning and happy workplaces.

I’ve also observed employees engaging in appalling communications. We’ve become even more rude, aggressive, irritable, angry and disrespectful to our colleagues and managers. There is a high level of insubordination and outright defiance.

There is no perfect solution for this. It took three years to cause this predicament, and it will take time to get out of it.

Employers need to take intentional action to get workplaces on the right track.

Leaders need to diagnose where they are in this spectrum. Then, develop a plan – and stick to it. When doing so, they should involve employees in the discussion. Everyone has a vested interest. The pandemic definitely showed us that there is more than one way to work.

Ultimately, employers need to do what is best for the future of their organization and their culture.

Some ideas on where to start:

Hybrid can be a good solution so long as people are in the workplace together at the same time on the same days. During “on-site” days, meetings and interactions should be in person – not virtual. Making the most of “on-site” days will reduce some of the drag and exhaustion of virtual meetings during designated “remote” days – or even reduce or eliminate the need for virtual meetings. While on-site, engagement needs to be a priority. For employees who are fully remote, employers should build in time for in-person gatherings and interactions.

Employers should retrain managers on performance management and begin holding employees accountable for conduct and performance expectations. Managers need to be intentional managers. They need to be empowered to set employees up for success and then hold them accountable for these expectations. Employers can also do a better job of showing value and appreciation for their exhausted workforce.

Employers should remind the entire workplace about their expectations for civility. Whether communicating in person, virtually or electronically, civility is the baseline. Every employee deserves a civil and respectful work environment, whether working remotely or in person. That isn’t happening. In my training, I refer to it as a “reset.”

Employers need to set solid expectations for employees working remotely, including child and adult care during working hours, hours of work, expectations for availability and response times. And, yes, some remote workers are secretly working more than one full-time job.

Finally, what are you doing to bring joy back to the workplace? Before the pandemic, the employees I met would say they actually enjoyed going to work and interacting with their colleagues, and they rated their job satisfaction relatively high. That isn’t the case anymore. Whether it’s with team luncheons, swag giveaways, Wednesday bagel day or something else, we need to make the workplace a fun and engaging place to be.