How Leaders Can Navigate Remote Work Policy Changes with Empathy

Eleanor Hecks

by Eleanor Hecks

5 min read
How Leaders Can Navigate Remote Work Policy Changes with Empathy
Managing Teams Future of Work Guides

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a historic shift in many companies' attitudes toward remote work. In the early days, many businesses sent their workers home, embracing remote options to keep employees healthy and minimize disruptions to operations. However, the rush to get people out of the office and the easing of the pandemic has resulted in a mishmash of policies. Today, finding the right balance between policies that benefit both the worker and the organization has become necessary.

Workers have pushed back hard against many of the return-to-office (RTO) efforts attempted by companies thus far, especially in cases where leadership has reversed course or added new policies without fully considering the impact on staff. Many employees fear their employer may change policy again, forcing them to look for work elsewhere, or relocate their family to another city or state to keep their job.

The situation is untenable.

Why Do Employees Resist Remote Work Policy Change?

Put yourself in the shoes of your workers. They rearranged their lives to work from home. Some had to buy special equipment. Others ramped up their Wi-Fi speeds or let IT come to their homes to set up company computers. Some may even have moved! Being forced to suddenly change a routine and lifestyle they’ve come to love is jarring. Most people will resist change of any sort. Making the reasons for a change clear and involving workers in the decision-making can alleviate a lot of the angst.

In research completed by Kevin Rockmann of George Mason University, an interesting theme of companies resisting remote work emerged. The pandemic forced the issue, but now that things have settled from the worst of the COVID cases, some companies are removing remote work options. Rockmann points to data showing the number of remote employees fell by 20% between 2021 and 2023. Positions for remote work on LinkedIn also decreased by 6% in 2022.

If companies insist on pushing old traditions that make little sense in terms of productivity, workers may feel management lacks trust in their work ethic or ability. In these cases, employees resist RTO because:

  • Management fails to explain the reasons behind decisions.
  • They’ve rearranged their lives to work from home.
  • The costs of commuting to and from the office are high and not priced into the salaries they accepted under a WFH policy.
  • Leadership attempting to micromanage rather than fostering a culture of accountability and autonomy.
  • They feel the company wants to track their every move and employees feel a lack of trust.

Each remote worker’s situation is unique. Some might need the extra time in the morning to get children on the school bus. Others might enjoy a long lunch in their house, where they can throw in a load of laundry or do some light house cleaning before picking back up work tasks. Knowing who your employees are is the first step to initiating policy changes without losing the most talented staff members.


How Can Managers Deal With Resistance to Change and Show Empathy?

Some remote work policy changes are necessary to keep things running efficiently and grow your business. The way managers and leaders approach these shifts can mean the difference between employees who accept the new policies and those quietly quitting while they look for another job.

1. Be an Example

Leadership shouldn’t ask workers to do something they aren’t willing to do. If you want your team in the office another day per week, you need to be in the office the same amount of time or more.

2. Offer Flexibility

Offer as much flexibility as you can. If higher-ups want everyone in the office, will they explore a four-day work week? Can employees leave early on days when their child has a special event at school and finish their work in the evening? While department heads should follow company policy, some gray areas might afford opportunities to satisfy policies while still keeping staff content.

3. Talk to Higher Ups

Advocate for your workers. Talk to company leaders about employees’ concerns and suggest ways to address any problem areas. Although many companies are pushing for RTO and some industries are embracing two remote days only, Slack and Salesforce are breaking the mold. Their leaders announced a "maximum workplace flexibility policy." They also made the choice to utilize current real estate rather than expanding the space they use.

Leadership must understand worker preferences and sentiment if they hope to reduce churn. The longer staff stays with your company, the more knowledge they obtain. Over time, having a team of highly skilled employees will help you pull ahead of the competition.

4. Open Lines of Communication

Employees who feel heard and understood are more likely to stay at their current jobs. Give them a voice by cultivating an open communication policy. In addition to having conversations with staff in person or via video conferencing, wise leadership regularly takes anonymous polls and surveys so that even your less-vocal employees can have a voice in the conversation.

Encourage staff to anonymously share their thoughts by sending emails, paper reminders and postcards. You can even reach out with automated calls to remind them to share their opinions. Turnout increases as much as 5% each time you remind employees about the survey, which is vital when trying to gather the valuable opinions of as many of your staff as possible.

5. Let Them Know You Hear Their Concerns

One of the best ways to build trust is to let your workers know you hear their concerns and are seeking solutions. Empathetic leaders understand that major remote work changes impact employees. For example, if you require them to install time-tracking software, they will perceive a lack of trust.

One HR research director at Gartner told CNN, "If you take flexibility away and do it for reasons that don't make sense… they won't give you their best and it may damage their trust in you."

6. Be Honest

Share the real reasons for policy changes without sugarcoating things. Employees want to feel they can trust those they’re working for. If productivity is down with remote work, share the data. People can understand you are paying them for a certain level of work and they aren’t hitting goals.

Business Insider reported that companies such as Amazon, Meta and Apple ordered many of their workers back to the office, showing a shift in remote work attitudes. Studies indicate around 90% of companies will maintain office space in 2024. Some CEOs are giving employees the option of working in the office or quitting. Such harsh stances are likely to backfire with a workforce ready to find another position should their current one not work out.

7. Add Extra Support

Consider ways you can offer extra support to employees facing significant changes in their workday. Allowing rolling start or quitting times. Look into on-site daycare options.

Many people are struggling with rising costs. Adding the expense of buying fuel to get to and from work is a stretch for those on a tight budget. Giving a slight raise or stipend to offset the expense may mean the difference between keeping an excellent employee and losing them.

Check In on Mental Well-Being

Major work changes can impact employee mental and physical health. Once you’ve implemented changes, take the time to check in on those working for you. How are they handling the changes? Are they experiencing more stress than normal?

Let your workers know you do care about how company decisions impact their lives. Sometimes just talking and brainstorming solutions can be a welcome respite from the cold corporate world. When you show your staff you care about them as people, they’ll be more likely to embrace change and try to show their employer loyalty and empathy.

Handle Your Remote Work Policy Changes With Empathy

Navigating resistance to changes in your remote work policy requires you as a leader to delicately balance empathy, transparency and lots of proactive communication. Leaders must understand and address employees’ concerns, offer as much flexibility as possible, advocate for workers’ needs and provide support during any transitions. By doing this, you can foster a culture of trust and collaboration that empowers your team to embrace change.


Tips for Productivity and Motivation: A Guide to Remote Work Goal Setting

Working flexible hours in the comfort of your own home is a dream for many. However, it can be challenging for others. Without co-workers and bosses around us, we must rely on ourselves for motivation to do our best every day. If you struggle with overworking, procrastination, and other challenges