When employees had no choice but to work at home in 2020, many felt uncomfortable. Without any warning, they had to figure out how to set up an office space, juggle family and professional responsibilities, and remain productive. Yet as the shock of the newness wore off, plenty of people experienced a major epiphany — for the most part, they liked ditching their commute, their cubicles, and the cultures they’d known.
Many organizations made accommodations for a long time to acknowledge workers’ newfound appreciation for remote work. By early 2022, however, quite a few businesses had realized that virtual work could be acceptable in doses but it wasn’t a long-term solution. Accordingly, they began calling back employees — and getting backlash in the process. Microsoft research notes that nearly three-quarters of remote workers say they’re not coming back to the office without good reason beyond company expectations. That’s a harsh reality for corporate leaders and an impetus for them to do more than just issue “back to work” edicts.
Your company may be facing a similar crisis. Yes, you want to support your employees. At the same time, you have determined that a remote workforce won’t dovetail with your organizational goals. So what’s the secret to ensuring your employees don’t leave weeks after you bring them back? Try one or more of the following strategies to make the office re-acclimation process less jarring and more rewarding.
1. Allow for some ongoing schedule flexibility.
Maybe you can’t allow your workers to set up remote or hybrid schedules. Is it possible for them to still flex their scheduling in other ways? Get creative. For instance, you may want to allow employees to occasionally adjust their schedules without taking PTO, so they don’t miss important life moments.
Being willing to make concessions shows empathy, according to Kristen Sieffert, president of Finance of America Reverse. It also makes the adjustment period less shaky. “It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to deprioritize their personal life just because in-person work is back,” writes Sieffert. “It’s time, instead, to normalize the choice to opt-out sometimes and prioritize flexibility over a rigid work schedule or mandatory in-person meetings that add stress but don’t necessarily add any practical value for the business.”
To make certain that scheduling doesn’t get out of hand, you’ll want to set up parameters. These could include how much flexibility is reasonable and transparency expectations so everyone knows everyone else’s schedules. If you are open to “here and there” remote work arrangements, stay on top of the rules you set. It could be easy for people to backslide into remote work and end up making it even harder to get everyone to return to office life.
2. Transform your workspaces.
You probably don’t need to be told, but this is worth saying: Employees aren’t inspired by traditional cubicles. The idea of coming back to the same-old, same-old space may push them into joining the Great Resignation. Or, they may simply quietly quit and end up sabotaging the productivity you’re trying to achieve.
As part of your “welcome back” plan, consider what you want your spaces to look like. Cindy Coleman and Don Ricker, both leaders at global design firm Gensler, have described how their company is leveraging this transitional period to achieve a future-forward layout overhaul. They explain, “Within the office, our designers and strategists are identifying space typologies to support unique needs like activity-based working, R&D spaces, and collaboration hubs.”
You may not want to invest in a complete makeover of your office. Just don’t be wary of trying some new configurations. Get team member buy-in and contributions before doing anything radical, though. You’ll make employees feel like their opinions are valued and their voices are heard.
3. Lay out a roadmap for the big return.
Give your people a long enough runway to return to full-time office work. A two-week notice just isn’t feasible, especially for remote workers who need to make childcare and other arrangements. Plan ahead at least a month or two, making sure you’re fully open about your intentions.
You will likely get some pushback and negotiations from people, so plug that into your timeline. Be prepared to listen to workers’ concerns, even if you decide not to act upon them. Honesty is critical. Rebecca Corliss, VP of marketing at VergeSense, recommends collecting input and having an ongoing dialogue related to the return.
Will you be able to please everyone? That’s doubtful. Nevertheless, you owe all of your employees your ear. Giving workers insight into what you want to do keeps them in the know. It also shows that you’re treating them like adults who deserve to be informed.
The past couple of years has been a huge remote-work experiment. For some organizations, the experiment was a success. For others, it was an interesting trial period that never really meshed with corporate objectives. If your business falls into the latter group, you probably want to bring your employees back to the workplace. Just do it in a way that ensures the homecoming is positive.