Although we’ve reached some semblance of a “new normal” when it comes to working in a professional environment post-pandemic, there are still lingering questions regarding why, when and how often employees should return to the office. What’s still the issue? There’s a big disconnect between what employers and employees want.
According to a Future Forums study conducted in Fall 2021 about inflexible return-to-office policies, 44% of executives want to return to fully in-office work, compared to only 17% of non-executive employees.
So, what’s the solution?
Employers’ view on a return to the office
Employers often cite the following rationale for a full-time return to the office:
- Collaboration and teamwork are best fostered when everyone’s together in person.
- Workplace culture needs to be preserved, and this is best accomplished when everyone’s together in person.
- Spontaneous conversations and idea generation can only happen at the office when people bump into each other by chance and talk face to face.
- It’s easier to monitor what employees are doing.
- Employers generally prefer an office environment and enjoy the energy of a full office.
Essentially, these employers miss the traditional, pre-COVID workplace and want to go back.
Employees’ view on a return to the office
From the employee perspective, the last two years have demonstrated that they can be equally effective at their jobs from home or any other location. Technology has enabled them to perform all the duties of their jobs remotely while continuing to interface and collaborate with team members, managers and clients.
- Productivity: Some employees report feeling even more productive and efficient at home without constant interruptions from colleagues, distractions around the office, unnecessary meetings or even just small talk with friends at work.
- Cost-savings: Working from home has saved employees a lot of money – especially in a time with record-high inflation and gas prices. No commute means lower gas expenses. They’re also saving other costs associated with going into the physical office, such as lunches out with co-workers or buying and dry-cleaning professional attire.
- Work-life balance: Employees have had a taste of freedom and improved work-life balance, and they want it to continue. No commute and being home means more time to spend with family and pursue personal interests and hobbies. For employees who are parents or caregivers for other family members, remote work has been especially helpful in balancing professional and personal obligations.
- Environment: For many employees, remote work is work without many of the less satisfying, unfortunate elements that often come with a workplace. There’s less exposure to office drama or politics, and they can be in a more comfortable (cubicle-free) environment, wearing casual attire.
- Health and safety: Of course, some employees – especially those with certain medical conditions or who care for an immune-compromised family member – remain concerned about exposure to COVID-19, which for them may carry a higher risk of a severe outcome.
Overall, they have discovered that there is a better way to work that balances individual and company needs and, for them, there is no going back.
What’s wrong with asking employees to return to the office?
Despite the employee views, some employers may still want or need to ask employees to return to the office. They might promote things such as free breakfast or lunch, or team-building games at the office, in a bid to raise employee morale and engagement.
Approaching the situation in this manner is problematic, because:
- It doesn’t address that employees hold greater leverage in the job market, and it places the business at risk of losing valued people.
- It doesn’t share the reasoning behind the decision or communicate the benefits of on-site work to both the individual employee and the organization. Employees cannot support what they don’t understand.
- Issuing orders that feel arbitrary to employees creates resentment and sends the message that employees’ concerns are irrelevant. Worse yet, with the lack of any reasons given, employees may perceive that their employers don’t trust them to work remotely.
5 ways to plan a return to the office that works for everyone
To avoid some of the issues above, use these strategies to make sure whatever change you have in plan works for all parties and does not lead to larger disruptions of business operations and unintended consequences.
1. Don’t forget the needs of your employees in the process
Before interrupting the workplace schedule and routine, consider how any change will affect employee engagement and satisfaction. Ask yourself:
- How do we find a way to give employees more of what they want while still accomplishing a return to the office in some form?
- How do we use this opportunity to reimagine the workplace and culture, and strengthen employees’ engagement and morale?
- What can we do over the long term to become a workplace that successfully retains employees?
2. Create a return-to-office strategy based on feedback
Before making any decisions or announcements about a return to the office, companies should consider conducting a “readiness to return to office” survey of their employees. This is a critical opportunity to:
- Get a pulse on what employees think about remote/hybrid vs. on-site work.
- Identify any major gaps in preferences between employees and leadership.
- Uncover any concerns or roadblocks that may exist for employees.
- Ask employees what they need from the company to be successful in an on-site or remote/hybrid work environment.
- Find out what level of flexibility your employees want.
You can also combine this with a general culture survey to find out if there’s anything specific about your physical office or workplace culture that employees find unappealing in person.
The results of the survey should govern your decision making, communication and how you address employees’ concerns throughout the return-to-office process.
If a huge disconnect exists between you and your employees, proceed with caution, and think carefully about how to address employee concerns to avoid alienating large swaths of your workforce.
3. Prioritize timely and well-communicated announcements
Transparent, honest and consistent communication is key. The biggest things employees want to know about an ask to return to the office is:
- What’s in it for me
- Who’s involved
When you make an announcement to employees, share results from the “readiness to return to office” survey with them. Tell them that your decision is based on their feedback.
Let them know which employees your decision applies to, or if everyone is impacted regardless of role, rank or performance history.
Explain how your decision aligns with and supports the company’s mission, vision, values and culture, as well as specific business goals.
If your business plans to introduce other measures that encourage flexibility in conjunction with a return to the office, such as hybrid work or alternative work schedules, announce this to employees as well. Prepare written policies that set expectations, clarify rules and restrictions, and establish consistency. Talk about the purpose of going into the office going forward.
Describe the benefits of returning to the office for employees and the company as a whole. Your goal is to energize and excite employees about the future, and help them understand how their personal circumstances will improve with the new changes.
However, this is also a conversation between the company and employees. Let them know with whom they can discuss additional questions or concerns.
4. Be realistic about a return to the office
Getting back to the physical office in some form will be a gradual transition – it won’t be a quick shift that happens within a few days. You may need to give your employees at least a month’s notice.
Consider your employees’ personal circumstances and obligations, and understand that they may need to shuffle some things around after two years of working remotely. For example, maybe they need time to make alternative arrangements for children’s daycare or for an aging family member for whom they’ve been caring.
This rule still applies even if your team has already returned to the office part time ,and that schedule is just changing to three or four days in the office instead of one or two.
If you’re implementing hybrid work arrangements or alternative work schedules, make time to meet with employees individually to discuss their unique scheduling preferences.
If an employee notifies you that they have a medical condition that increases their risk of severe COVID-19, you may need to engage in an interactive discussion with them per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to find a reasonable workplace accommodation. Depending on their role and job duties, this may involve permanent, 100% remote work.
5. Make improvements when needed
Determine whether you should enhance your physical office to encourage employees to come back to work on-site. For example:
- Re-evaluate whether you want to stick with assigned cubicles or offer a mix of shared spaces to accommodate different working styles and purposes, such as open collaboration areas, private meeting rooms and outdoor spaces. If you implement a hybrid schedule, this is especially important as you revisit the role of the office and define the purpose of coming on-site.
- For employees who are concerned about COVID-19 exposure, assess your health and safety protocols and consider making building upgrades to protect health and safety.
Maybe your workplace culture could benefit from a review as well. For example:
- Strive for an environment that uplifts and inspires.
- Make trust and autonomy central to your culture – you don’t want employees to feel as though the return to the office is to enable more micromanagement.
- Consider how to better support employees who are parents and/or caregivers.
Summing it all up
Although many employers want a more regular, traditional return to the office, many employees don’t. The way forward seems to center on hybrid work, a combination of remote and on-site work, as well as the enablement of more worker flexibility and autonomy.
Whether your return to work is a hybrid two-days-a-week schedule or full shift to on-site work, survey your workforce and find out how they feel. Based on these results, come up with a plan, communicate it and make accommodations when necessary.
Listening to your employees and factoring their needs into major workplace decisions is crucial for increasing their morale and engagement. For more strategies on improving employees’ attitude toward, and connection with, the workplace, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.