With COVID restrictions easing, companies are returning to a “new normal,” everyone’s got an opinion about returning to the office and leaving hybrid work behind. Whether you’re clamoring to go back to the office or desperate to stay home, you’ve got to figure out what’s best for your company – and if there are more innovative ways to craft a workplace of the future.
The state of returning to work
The return-to-work disconnect
Checklist: Is returning to the office right for your company?
Fitting with industry standards
The state of returning to work
Large international companies are setting the standard for returning to work. However many in the Fortune 500 are adapting hybrid work for the foreseeable future, not all businesses are marching to the beat of the same drum.
“Which companies are returning to office?”
- Google: Mandatory in-office three days per week starting April 4. Remote work extensions will be available for some, and employees can request to switch locations.
- Apple: Mandatory three days per week starting April 11.
- JP Morgan Chase: Reopened offices on February 1, and has been office-first since.
- Microsoft: Individual managers are determining whether employees can stay remote by March 28.
- Twitter: Reopened offices on March 15, but says employees who want to work from home permanently can do so.
Amazon’s return-to-office policies represent the most commonly held view about returning to the office, as employees and individual managers will be determining where they work. CEO Andy Jassey says, “At a company of our size, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how every team works best. We’re going to be in a stage of experimenting, learning, and adjusting for a while.”
The return-to-work disconnect: is returning to the office important?
While upper level management might be excited to reopen their doors, employees have mixed feelings about returning to work that may not align with their company’s return policies. But why are employers so anxious to go back to the office, and why are employees so eager to stay away?
According to The Future Forum’s survey of over 10,000 international knowledge workers, 75% of all executives want to work from the office anywhere from three to five days a week. Furthermore, 44% want to return to the office full-time. However, over half of these executives are creating return-to-office policies with no input from their employees.
As for why employers are more interested in returning to the office, many believe that productivity is significantly warped when employees work from home. The office provides a frame for one’s work/life balance. Although work hours may have extended into weekends and nights, employees still feel isolated from colleagues, which negatively impacts their wellbeing.
Creating company culture is also an issue remotely. In the office, organic opportunities for creative spontaneity are more common. And with Zoom burnout, virtual happy hours and digital offsites were useful in a pinch, but in-person environments foster more employee connection.
In The Future Forum’s study, only a third of employees would want to work in the office three days a week or more. In addition, another survey from BetterUp found that 97% of respondents want to work remotely (at least some of the time) for the rest of their careers. Moreover, employees would even consider leaving their jobs if they’re not given some level of flexibility. But why?
Working from home gives employees something they’ve never had: freedom and flexibility. Going into the office means commuting, staying for a length of time they can’t control, and loitering at their desk, even if they have very little to do. Furthermore, choosing their own hours is tremendously important, and companies that provide flexible work hours have retention rates four times higher than those who don’t.
The office environment itself is also something leaders need to consider when asking employees to return. Though they miss camaraderie with coworkers, office noise levels, uncomfortable chairs, outdated technology, and COVID safety are all reasons employees tend to dislike their environment. Interestingly, data shows that employees aren’t opposed to working in-person from coffee shops, outdoor spaces created by their companies, or other locations.
Checklist: is returning to the office right for you?
Your company might still be figuring out the most effective way to return to the office – or maybe you’re not convinced that you need an office at all. Read on to weigh some pros and cons.
One of the main reasons returning to work might not seem like the best option is because it costs money – both for your employees and your company. Global Workplace Analytics reports that before the pandemic, employees that only worked half time saved their company an average of $11,000 dollars. Employers also found themselves saving money due to increased productivity, lower real estate, reduced absenteeism, and reduced turnover. From the employee side, a FlexJobs survey showed that remote workers save on average $4,000 on fuel, meals, subway fare, or work clothes.
Questions for employers:
- Can your company afford an office location?
- What would an office add to their employee experience?
- Are there more innovative ways to craft collective working spaces?
Fitting with industry standards
Another reason you might be thinking about reopening your offices is that you see other companies in your industry doing the same. A McKinsey poll says that finance and insurance have the highest potential for remote-only work. In these sectors, most of one’s tasks can be done remotely without compromising productivity. Ironically, financial firms like Goldman Sachs have been more adamant about the return to office than most. Furhter, Management, business services, and information technology all have the second-highest potential.
Where does your company fit?
- Why do you think your industry is shifting to or away from the office?
- Is your industry tech-forward, or are they relying on analog systems to track finances, payroll, or paperwork that necessitate an office?
With new COVID variants and easing vaccine requirements, employees are also concerned about their health when considering returning to the office. Google’s in-person staff will no longer be mandated to get COVID vaccines, and vaccinated coworkers won’t have masking or testing requirements. However, EY found that 61% of respondents want to make vaccinations mandatory in the workplace. In order for employees to feel safe and want to come back to work, they need to feel heard when it comes to their health.
- Have you asked employees how they feel about transitioning back to the office given COVID?
- Does your workplace have any educational resources on COVID or vaccines? Would that fit with your company culture?
You might think that returning to the office is an easy way to solve your work from home woes, but that may not be the case. Some of the biggest problems employees have with working from home are isolation, being unable to unplug, and maintaining a work/life balance. But there’s a chance that these habits will be hard to break after two years, no matter where you’re working from. Is working from the office a magical solution, or a small bandaid on a larger injury?
Think outside the box:
- Which problems do your employees have with working from home?
- What do they like about working in an office?
- Has your company tried initiatives to implement to tackle WFH burnout (complementary telehealth sessions, virtual fitness challenges, virtual coffee networking, home office stipends, etc.)? What works, and what doesn’t?
- What initiatives has your company set in place to support colleagues who are back in the office (for example Mystery Lunch)?
The return to office might be messy, and it’s a learning process for both HR professionals and employees alike. Above all, key points to remember are that employees want flexibility and the ability to reconnect with their coworkers – however that might look. Returning to the office is a team effort that requires collaboration and communication, and once your new office rhythm is established, your company can flourish in the hybrid world.
If you decide to return back to the office, it is helpful to provide a small “Welcome back” surprise for your employees, like KMGP Norway did with this ironic video:
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