The pandemic emptied offices overnight, bringing an abrupt switch to remote work for many employees. Now that conditions have improved, many companies set Labor Day return to office deadlines, pushing the number of in-office workers to a little over half of pre-pandemic levels in September 2022.
But workers aren’t going without a fight. Research found that 60% of workers said they’d rather quit than return to the office five days a week. Another survey showed the stark contrast between employers and employees – while 75% of employers instructed employees to return to the office at least part-time, 26% of employees refused to do so, and were willing to find another job if necessary.
This is clearly a polarizing topic – many people do want to go back to the office, even if not full-time. But where does it leave businesses? At a time when the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and skills shortages are already impacting productivity, how can companies overcome return to office resistance and improve employee retention?
Understanding the reasons for home working
To start, it is important for employers to understand why many people enjoy working remotely. Employee feedback uncovers a variety of reasons, from improved productivity at home to the freedom from micromanagement, increased flexibility and greater work/life balance remote work provides. Many actively like the fact that they can avoid certain colleagues and their habits. 32% of employees surveyed by Tivian said avoiding colleagues they disliked was a key benefit of homeworking. There’s also the cost and time savings from eliminating the commute, a particular boon given the rising cost of gasoline.
Equally, some employees, particularly in vulnerable groups, may still have health and safety fears. Many have simply formed new habits – their daily routine no longer involves going into the office. Finally, for the 20% of people who have changed jobs since the pandemic began, it may feel daunting to meet their coworkers in real life rather than over Teams and Zoom.
Understanding why people want to go back to the office
Many people do want to return to the office, albeit on a part-time basis, because remote work doesn’t meet their needs. They may find themselves juggling family and household commitments when working at home or struggle with a lack of space or inadequate internet connection. Employers may not be able to provide the digital tools, such as collaboration software, that enables effective remote work.
For many, the blurring of barriers between work and home has contributed to longer working hours (an average of two more hours per day according to research) which increases stress and the risk of burnout. As we move into winter, the expense of heating a home office during the day will also add to employee costs and may outweigh any travel savings. Certain employees actually miss their colleagues and the social side of the office, as well as the structure and boundaries that it provides.
How can employers meet every employee’s needs?
While employees are split, 82% of employers feel it’s a major concern to get people back to the office in person. Companies see key benefits as the ability to collaborate and innovate through face-to-face meetings and the chance to strengthen teams (especially those with newer hires or more junior employees) and build a strong, positive culture.
However, with many employees strongly against returning to the office full-time and plenty of employers offering remote options, flexibility is key to maintaining employee engagement. Essentially, businesses need to treat the return to the office as a major cultural change project – which means focusing on these eight areas:
Listen to your people on a one-to-one basis
– find out what they like and dislike about working in the office or at home and use this to inform your actions on an individual and wider basis. Bear in mind that 67 percent of employees said they would be more likely to stay if employers listened and made changes based on their feedback.
– let people know what you are doing and why, stressing the importance of their input on the decisions you have taken around remote work and returning to the office.
Lead from the top
– make sure that your leaders are in the office and are available and visible, but don’t demonize people for not being in the office all the time.
Focus on the work environment
– use employee feedback to refresh the office environment. For example, introduce more social spaces for collaboration and meeting rooms while carving out places where people can work undisturbed.
Focus on employee needs
–many people missed the social element of the office, so provide opportunities for employees to socialize. Also, bear in mind current economic pressures – lunches or other benefits perks could mean more than ever right now.
Train your managers for the new world of work –
offer resources to help managers build strong hybrid teams that include everyone, including team members who choose not to be in the office.
– the entire process of returning to the office is new to staff, so their needs and requirements may change once they get back in the building. Don’t be afraid to update your strategy and tactics as you go based on the latest feedback.
Give people the right tools
– provide digital solutions that enable employees to work effectively, wherever they are. For many organizations, digitalization is a major shift, meaning you need to successfully manage this transformational change. That involves listening to employees throughout the process, identifying key trends in adoption, and taking effective action to ensure digitalization delivers real benefits to the organization.
Why listening is key to bringing people back to the office
The world of work has been reshaped by the pandemic and many people are wary of returning to the office. The key to successfully wooing them back while maintaining engagement is to listen – at the organizational level and on an individual basis. Most importantly, act on that feedback to deliver the hybrid working environment that will best meet the needs of the company and the employee.