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06.05.2022 Organisation & processes

The Great Return: How to get employees back to the office

The Great Return: How to get employees back to the office

Now the pandemic’s impact is steadily decreasing, businesses are actively (and eagerly) trying to get employees to return to the office. But many workers don’t share the enthusiasm. As a manager, how do you get your employees back into the office?

More than two years ago, COVID-19 forced employees out of the office and into their homes. By now, most offices have reopened and employers are welcoming back their workforce. But not everyone is equally eager to return.

Managers notice that The Great Return—as it’s being called—actually isn’t always that great. Although many employees look forward to getting back to their desks, others are hesitant to come back to the office. And, simply forcing workers to return might lead to discontent or, worse, resignations.

That’s why it’s important that, as a leader, you ensure that you handle the return to the office in the best way possible. Below, you can find 9 tips on how to get employees back to the office. These ideas help you create a return-to-office strategy that will encourage your employees to return without them feeling forced!

Why employees don’t want to return to the office (and why employers want them to)

Before we explain how to get them back, let’s first see why they might not want to return to the office in the first place. After all, getting to the root of the problem is key when trying to find the best solution.

Many countries around the world have now dropped their COVID-19-related restrictions. This is particularly true for Europe and North America, where most companies—including tech giants like Apple, Google, and Twitter—have fully reopened their offices.

But the way employees (want to) work has changed significantly in the past two years. The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on how people think about the balance between work and private life.

And right now, employees, especially the younger Gen Z and Millennials, feel empowered to demand change from employers—or they will look for an employer who will meet their demands. We discuss this topic in more detail in our separate article, The Great Resignation in 2022: How to retain great talent.

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The result of these increasing employee demands is that the return to the office requires much more from employers than a simple matter of reopening their doors. But there is more to it than that…

Here are the main reasons why employees do not want to return to the office:

  • Some employees still have health concerns and prefer avoiding crowded spaces such as offices
  • Working from home gives employees more control over their working hours and they can use this flexibility to quickly run errands, do an afternoon workout, or go for lunchtime walks in nature
  • They save time (and energy) by not having to commute
  • While working from home they can spend more time with their family
  • Research suggests that many people are more productive when working from home rather than from a busy office
  • Remote work can be done from anywhere in the world, offering much more location flexibility
  • Employees can fully customise and optimise their workplace setup at home according to their personal preferences
  • Employees can save money to otherwise spend on things like petrol, a public transport ticket, or daycare for the kids
  • Taking away the office takes away certain stress and anxiety to perform and act presentable around colleagues—many people feel more comfortable and at ease at home

With so many benefits for your employees, why would you want to force them back in the office?

And by not having (as many) employees in your office, you can actually benefit as an employer as well. You can save a lot of money on expenses such as rent, utilities, cleaning services, food, and drinks. So why are many employers still desperate to get employees to return to the office?

Well, here are common reasons why employers want their workforce back in the office:

  • Building a strong company culture can be challenging when done (partly) remotely
  • Employees might feel less connected to the company when they’re not working from the office
  • Team collaboration can be more challenging and less effective remotely
  • Employers have less visibility and control over what their employees are doing during their day

However, research on the matter—such as from the Future Forum Pulse Report—actually suggests that in many cases the opposite might be true. Remote and hybrid teams (more on this below) are actually often shown to perform and collaborate equally or potentially even better than fully in-office teams.

Combine this with the fact that your employees will be grateful for your willingness to adapt to the new way of working, and it becomes clear that employers are probably better off going with the flow.

For example, Airbnb announced at the end of April 2022 that they will allow remote work for good, while still offering in office work as well. And as a Bloomberg article quickly pointed out, this policy was partially a strategic move to compete for top talent.

Does this mean you have to go fully remote?

No. In fact, not all of your employees will want to work remotely. But you might have to consider being open to the idea, or at least a hybrid model. We’ll further explain—and how to still get the rest of your workforce back in the office—in the next section below.

9 tips on how to get employees back to the office

An office with employees working again after what’s been called the Great Return
Photo by Israel Andrade, Unsplash

Rather than simply forcing workers to return to the office full-time, it’s more advisable to work towards a hybrid model that fits your unique organisation and workforce. So let’s have a look at how you can achieve this for your organisation.

1. Listen to your employees

As we’ve seen, there are many reasons why your employees might not want to come back to the office. And they expect you to take their reasons seriously.

But nevertheless, a large-scale Future Forum survey from October 2021 found that 66% of business leaders were creating plans to return to the office after COVID-19 without input from their employees. And that’s one of the biggest mistakes employers make.

Firstly, you’re more likely to make wrong assumptions and waste time and money in the process. For example, you might assume offering a certain incentive (also see point seven below), like free pizza Fridays, will get them back. But perhaps none of your employees actually want a benefit like that.

Secondly, research (including the Future Forum survey) has shown that leaders like working from the office more than employees because of experience disparities.

For example, a working mother is likely to prefer a hybrid working model so she can spend more time caring for her children. But most company leaders are still men who don’t have to take care of a child at home. Employers aren’t always conscious of this experience disparity, leading them to not identify reasons against returning to the office that their employees might have.

So instead of formulating a return to work plan yourself, try to start a conversation with your employees and listen to their reasons. Openly ask for feedback and input and base your plan on what your employees have to say. For example, you can do this via 1-2-1 meetings or by sending out company-wide surveys.

2. Be transparent

You should listen to your employees and take their feedback on board, but you should also be clear about your own reasons and expectations. And throughout the process, it’s important to be transparent and promote an ongoing feedback culture.

Explain to your team why you want them back in the office and why you are making certain decisions. For example, you may decide on a hybrid working model where employees have to work from the office a minimum of three days a week. Explain why you’ve decided this (e.g. to still allow for regular on-site collaboration and in-person meetings) and actively ask your employees about their opinion.

If it turns out that 90% of employees threaten to quit their job because of it, you might have to find a different solution or provide additional incentives or flexibility. This leads us to point number three.

3. Be flexible and open to change

Enforcing rules your employees absolutely hate isn’t going to help anyone. It will lead to employee dissatisfaction and damage your company culture, ultimately leading to resignations and a higher employee turnover.

As Amy Zimmerman, Chief People Officer at Relay Payments, explains: “You’re making a huge mistake if you require folks back in the office full time because they see progress most companies have made in the last two years, and they’ll ask, ‘why?’”

The pandemic has changed the world of work and you can’t resist that. Instead, be flexible and open to change. You don’t have to go fully remote straight away, but you should be open to a hybrid working model where you allow employees to work from home on a regular basis.

Flexible working hours are another good way to give your employees more control over their work-life balance.

4. Create a safe space

Don’t forget that even though your country’s government might have dropped most COVID-19 measurements, some employees might still be anxious and scared of the ongoing threat of the virus.

That’s why it’s important to ensure your office is a safe space for all employees. And if someone has genuine concerns or fears, don’t just force them to sit in a crowded office every day. You are just putting a lot of pressure on them, which can lead to unnecessary stress, burnout, and ultimately resignation.

Employee at an office desk wearing a face mask to ensure it’s safe to go back to the office
Photo by Maxime, Unsplash

5. Be inclusive and understanding

Not only create a safe space but be inclusive and understanding in the return to office plan you create. Remember that different people have different experiences, so be mindful of those differences.

For example, someone who has to commute for 1.5 hours because they cannot afford to live closer to the office will likely prefer to work from home at least a few times per week to save time and money. Another employee might live close to the office but in a shared flat without a dedicated space for them to work, so they might be thrilled to work from the office five days a week.

Furthermore, research has shown that traditionally underrepresented groups have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Be mindful of how certain employees might need additional support and incentives to return to the office.

This ensures you retain a diverse and inclusive workforce, which in turn will help your business thrive. In fact, multiple studies have shown that employees actively seek an inclusive workplace, and they are 47% more likely to stay with an organisation if it’s inclusive.

6. Invest in team-building and company culture

You probably already know that team building and company culture are important, but to get employees back in the office this holds more true than ever.

According to a McKinsey study, employees seek inclusive workplaces and for companies to achieve this, they want them to invest in three key areas:

  1. Work-life support
  2. Team building
  3. Mutual respect

We’ve already discussed points one and three, but equally important is focussing on team building and creating an environment where employees love to work.

This begins by promoting psychological safety within your workplace to ensure everyone feels included and safe. But this also includes organising team building activities that help your employees connect, socialise, and give them a reason to come back to your office. And that leads us to point seven.

7. Focus on incentives rather than consequences

Some employers may be tempted to create a plan and then try to enforce it with sanctions. For example, some employers may threaten to withhold an employee’s salary if the person doesn’t return to the office.

Now, although in many cases the employer will have the legal right to do so if the job location is stated in the employee contract (more on contracts in the next point), this often only leads to a disgruntled workforce. Instead, try to focus on giving incentives and offering benefits that make it more attractive for employees to return to the office.

For example, here at JOIN, we now work according to a hybrid model in which employees are asked to work from home a maximum of two days per week. In return, employees following this model get access to a bunch of attractive perks, including monthly transportation tickets and gym memberships.

In other words, the narrative is flipped around. Instead of punishing employees for not complying, we reward them when they do.

8. Review employee contracts

When switching to this new way of working, it might be worth reviewing both existing and future employee contracts.

First, although we strongly advise against using what’s stated in an existing contract to force an employee back to the office, the contract can give an employer some extra leverage.

For example, you can argue that even though the contract states the work has to be done from the office, you are willing to revisit this if the employee considers coming to the office at least two days per week.

Reviewing and adapting both existing and future contracts also means that both parties will have something to fall back on moving forward. For future employees, it makes sense to clearly communicate your working model and return to the office plan directly in the job ad.

9. Keep communicating and adapting

Lastly, we cannot stress enough how important it is to keep communicating with your employees and adapt your policies if needed. The world of work keeps rapidly changing and if you want to retain top talent you need to change with it.

That’s why continuously promoting an open feedback culture in your organisation is now more important than ever. And rather than forcing everyone back in the office, you are probably better off adapting to a hybrid or remote working model. Not sure yet which model is best for your organisation?

Then read our complete guide on remote vs. hybrid work!

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