Companies successfully making the transition to in-person and hybrid schedules know it’s their people, not their policy, that will make it work.
When companies abruptly sent employees home in the spring of 2020, they worried about how working remotely would affect morale, productivity, and team cohesiveness. They likely never imagined the bigger challenge—convincing employees to come back to the office. A shift that took weeks to become the norm has taken months, and many failed attempts, to reverse.
With the majority of employees preferring a fully remote or hybrid work option, companies developing and implementing return to office (RTO) strategies are experimenting with a variety of tactics: reconfiguring the workplace to expand space for collaboration; establishing enhanced safety policies; and offering incentives such as food and beverages, social events, and amenities lacking in most home offices.
While there is no perfect RTO policy that works for all organizations, the most successful strategies do have one thing in common. They start with the employee—and keep employees at the center of all decisions.
Organizations forming their RTO strategy should consider the following:
Hiring and Retention is at Stake: In a recent survey, 87% of working Americans said they would choose to “work flexibly” when provided the opportunity.1 The same survey found that the third most common reason participants were looking for a new job was to have a remote work option. With today’s fierce competition for talent, a company’s ability to attract and keep high performers depends on getting its RTO strategy right.
The consequences of getting it wrong can be brutal: In 2021, a manager at a professional services firm unilaterally decided to require his team to be back in the office four to five days a week. Within months, half the team had left the firm. By talking with employees before issuing the RTO order, this leader could have better understood his team’s needs and wants. Such a dialogue would have increased mutual trust, helped the leader understand the risks of his plan—and enabled him to craft a policy that didn’t have talent bolting for the exit.
Engagement Hinges on Job Reattachment: For people who’ve been working remotely for over two years, a hybrid or fully in-person schedule upends established routines. Employees experience a kind of “reboot” and must mentally prepare not only for tasks and responsibilities, but for a new physical environment. Before they can be engaged and productive, they must rebuild a mental connection to work. In psychological terms, this is known as “job reattachment.”
Managers can assist their teams in that adjustment by creating an environment where employees feel psychologically safe, by leading with humanity and empathy. This requires leaders to be aware of their own mindsets, cognizant of how their actions affect others, and willing to learn quickly and change as needed.
Equity Matters: Even within organizations, one-size-fits all policies have little chance of succeeding. Some positions might lend themselves to fully remote work. For other jobs—such as those in manufacturing or R&D or those that are client-facing—even a partially remote arrangement might not be possible. Providing different options to employees in different functions across the organization can lead to tension.
Employers can defuse the tension by striving to make remote work equitable for all, communicating transparently and leading with the needs of their people. This includes recognizing that for some employees a return to in-person work also means a return to lengthy, expensive daily commutes, or that the new policy will send parents scrambling for childcare. Leaders should look for solutions to help mitigate these stressors.
Authorship Leads to Ownership: To craft an RTO policy that keeps employees at the center, organizations must start by talking with employees. Sounds obvious, but too many RTO initiatives fail because companies skip or skimp on the process of discovering their employees’ wants and needs. This assessment can take the form of surveys, interviews, town halls, focus groups, anything that lets employees be—and feel—heard.
Ultimately, the RTO policy won’t please everyone (has anything ever?). It will, though, be built on meeting the needs of employees. Even those who are disappointed by some parts of the plan will feel a greater sense of buy-in for having had their voices heard.
Flexibility is Key: Again, there is no perfect approach to RTO. How could there be? There is no precedent, no model for what companies are attempting to do. The principles and practices outlined here can lay the foundation of a winning RTO strategy. Success, though, demands that companies stay flexible, trying out new policies, listening to employee feedback, admitting when something doesn’t work, and pivoting when necessary.
The pandemic has forced organizations into a massive experiment. It will take intentionality, flexibility, and a relentless focus on people to discover the RTO formula that best serves the needs of employees and organizations.