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Back to work: Watch your messages

Hey, gang! Fun’s over! Time to get back to work!

It is in questionable taste at best to refer to the grim year of the pandemic as “fun.” But employers may want to make sure they’re not giving the wrong message to employees who had been working remotely but are coming back to the workplace.

Specifically, employers may want to ask themselves whether, having excelled while working remotely during the pandemic, workers need the kind of supervision that was previously thought necessary.

One small company (not Blue Book) recently announced that its offices would be reopening over the summer. Employees who had been working remotely would still be permitted to do so, but only for 20 hours a week—and they would have to fill out an hour-by-hour sheet detailing what specific things they were doing at those times.

This policy did not go over well with all employees.

“What?” complained one. “We pulled through for you over the past year, and you yourselves told us we were doing a great job. Now you’re saying you don’t trust us out of the office, and we have to list every last little thing we’re doing every hour?”

Remote work is not possible in every situation: you can’t sweep floors or move boxes of lettuce remotely. And many jobs require employees to be in the presence of their colleagues. Other positions—and employees—can’t function without direct supervision.

But even trucking—that most rubber-on-the-road of all industries—is relying more and more on third parties, often using software, for booking. Much of this can be done as well from a home office as from a workplace cubicle.

The point here is not to give specific advice, especially in an industry as diverse as produce. It’s more a matter of emotional intelligence—a concept made famous in a 1995 book of that title by Daniel Goleman. Emotional intelligence considers the total effect an action has on others—which may contradict the explicit message.

What happens when employers fail to get it right? Some employees are simply quitting instead of going back, reports Bloomberg.

What are you communicating to employees with new back-to-work policies? It seems unwise to introduce strictures on remote work that are more rigorous than they were during the pandemic.

Employers are increasingly thinking of jobs—particularly salaried positions—as a set of tasks to be performed. As long as they’re accomplished on time and in the right way, it’s left up to the employee when and how to carry them out.

This is sensible. Monitoring employee performance is productive only to the point where it ensures that the job is done.

Beyond that, it is busywork, taking up time and labor that could be turned to more profitable purposes. It can also imply a lack of confidence in employees’ ability and integrity.

Many companies send around communications saying, “Great job, everyone! We’re really proud of you!” They might want to make sure their management practices are not transmitting a different message much more powerfully.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.