What your return-to-office plans need

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Jul 25, 2023

back to office smiling woman

Bringing your people back to the office isn’t something to dive into unprepared. Scan the headlines, and you’ll see that businesses of all kinds – from Amazon to Farmers Insurance to Google on down – are suffering backlash from within, and even employee walkouts, in exchange for their return-to-office (RTO) mandates.

Of course, not everyone can work from home indefinitely, and the reality of nonprofits often means that person-to-person work is a must. There’s also plenty of evidence that workplace culture, morale, productivity, and innovation can benefit when people work together in the same space – but only if you can get their buy-in. After all, they have proven themselves capable of working remotely, and they aren’t going to be coerced with RTO policies they see as unnecessary or overreaching.

So how can you get people back to the office thoughtfully, with respect for everything we’ve learned about employee needs and abilities over the past three years? To answer that, we’ve pulled together advice from some of our favorite sources.

First: Be flexible

All the way back in 2021, workplace culture expert Jamie Notter was already noting that the shift to remote work isn’t a passing trend, but a structural upheaval: “Now that we know that flexibility, customization, and designing around employee needs is possible, we’re not going back.” If your RTO plan is a 5-day mandate or a rigid hybrid schedule – for instance, everyone must commit to three days a week, or the development team must be on-site every Tuesday – Notter says to expect significant pushback.

The solution? If a fixed schedule is a must, then make it clear how “predictability and consistency” are mission-critical. If not, then embrace flexibility – that is, “reorient your culture toward customization and employee needs.” Understanding and adaptability are key to making sure employees don’t feel railroaded back to the office.

One approach Notter suggests: Communicate the benefits of in-office time, but try leaving it up to employees to decide when to make the commute – at least at first. Once the ball is rolling, you can collect the data on employees’ time in-office using surveys (or targeted conversations) that cover when they come in and how they spend their time. You can then develop policies that fit the specific ways your people use the office environment. In the spirit of flexibility, be sure to err on the side of guidelines and options rather than hard-and-fast rules.

Second: Listen to your people’s needs

In addition to collecting data on in-office time, you should also be asking for input about what your people need in terms of RTO policy and the office space itself – and not just in the initial RTO phase, but continuously. Great Places to Work provides the following list of fundamental questions to ask, noting that “making sure people feel they have choices to fit their needs is key to retaining top talent.”

  • Do you feel supported by your colleagues as you return to the office?
  • Do you feel you have the tools to work safely in-office?
  • Do you feel the workplace supports your responsibilities at home?
  • Do you trust your leaders’ decisions?
  • Do you feel like you have a say in how you work?

The question of safety is not to be taken lightly: Don’t neglect the fact that COVID variants are still circulating, and that certain populations are still quite vulnerable – including employees you might not realize are immunocompromised or living with someone who is. As UST recommends, ensure employees that you are keeping up with current CDC guidelines “in knowledge and practice,” and make your safety practices known both to ease stress and to establish a culture of caring.

Third: Make the office a place worth coming in to

Research conducted by Microsoft, as reported in Harvard Business Review, shows that what people want most out of the office experience isn’t a cool new perk or any particular seating arrangement. Rather it’s other people: 85% of those surveyed said they “would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds,” and nearly as many cited the opportunity to “socialize with coworkers.”

To that end, Microsoft’s Chris Capossela suggests reducing in-office “busywork” to make time for “new in-person rituals” that give your people fun, accessible ways to reconnect. These rituals could include day-long workshops aimed at particular teams, a schedule of extended catered lunches for the entire staff, or group field trips to office-adjacent gathering spots (restaurants, parks, museums, etc.). “This in-person socializing is not taking away from productivity – it’s fueling innovation, psychological safety, retention, and more,” writes Capossela.

Writing for Fast Company, one communications tech CEO suggests helping employees replicate the at-home setups they’ve become accustomed to, “a gesture that demonstrates to workers their remote offices have value and [that] you want to make them as comfortable as possible.” With the proper equipment already in place – from the right laptops and chargers to their preferred style of lighting – employees “can get right to work” once they sit down.

Keep tabs and stay agile

Of course, there are dozens of techniques and approaches to getting people back into the office (just check this up-to-date list to see what major companies are doing, and how it’s going for them). What’s important is that you communicate clearly the reasons for returning to the workplace, listen to your people with intention, and do what you can to meet their needs – especially as those needs change and emerge.

In this time of transition, workers are acutely aware of the way they’re being treated.  Respect their abilities, comfort, and homelife, and you will be rewarded.

Marc Schultz is communications editor for Work for Good.

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