The office: to return or not to return? That is the question that HR and company leaders are facing these days.
One of the many unexpected side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was the sudden transition to working from home. What seemed like a temporary adjustment eventually evolved into a standard practice as many companies allowed their workforce to operate from home. As the world reopened, some businesses remained fully remote while others turned into a hybrid work environment.
Three years on, companies are still trying to decide if and how people should return to the office. On one hand, at-home work environments can be better for diversity and inclusion and suit all kinds of lifestyles. At the same time, some leaders believe businesses perform better with in-person workforces. And GoodHire’s 2022 remote work survey found that 37% of workers also favored returning to the office.
How do companies craft an inclusive return-to-office policy that balances the pros of both setups? Navigating these decisions is uncharted territory for most organizations, so here is what you need to know about return-to-office policies and how to make the most of going back to the office.
Lessons Learned from Remote Work
The remote work revolution had some definite benefits to which the workforce has grown accustomed. Organizations can make the most of this going forward by asking: “How can we take those lessons and benefits of remote work and incorporate them into a return-to-office policy?” Some of the most notable advantages of remote work to consider include the following:
- Broader talent pool. Having the option or ability to work from home is more inclusive and helps all kinds of people. Remote work even helped set record employment rates for disabled workers, so organizations that can continue to accommodate employees and their needs will be more equipped to foster diversity throughout their entire operations.
- Save money on workspace. Because employees were not on-site very often if at all during remote work, the office space that organizations pay for became relatively obsolete. Organizations found themselves no longer needing the space and could save money that they could instead spend on more pressing expenses.
- Reduce carbon footprint. By eliminating commutes, people don’t have to drive every day, which reduces the toll that motor vehicles can have on the environment. For people that don’t need to be in-person during work, those employees can still help reduce carbon emissions while still getting the job done.
- Higher-quality work. Remote work also helps employees experience work-life wellness where they have more control over their schedules and can optimize their own work environment. When employees have more autonomy because of their location independence, they tend to be more productive: such workers produce results with 40% fewer quality defects and teleworkers are an average of 35-40% more productive than their office counterparts.
How to Structure an Inclusive Return to Office Policy
As we said earlier, 37% of employees say they’d like to work in an office. At the same time, however, one in four workers say they refuse to return to the office — and are even willing to accept termination as a result. Given the benefits of both in-person and remote work, each group has a point. Building return-to-office policies need to be handled with empathy and grace to address the needs of both groups and benefits of both working setups.
Incorporate Employee Input
Asking employees to shape your return to the office plan can help it meet everyone’s needs from the start. This information can aid you in identifying any potential hurdles they foresee experiencing, so you can plan how those will be addressed before they arise. Surveying your employees can also reduce staff anxieties about returning to the office since they know the company is listening to their needs from the start.
Set Explicit In-Office Expectations
The last thing you want to do is create unnecessary complications because your workplace requirements are vague. For instance, are you going to operate under a hybrid schedule or are employees expected to always be in the office? In hybrid situations, what days of the week should team members be in the office? Are there any jobs that are exempt from the return to office policy, or personal circumstances that allow for exceptions?
Every company is answering these questions differently. Whatever your policy is, help your employees successfully transition from remote work to office work by being crystal clear about what is expected. This can prevent managers or employees being put in a difficult position because expectations are fuzzy.
Ward Against Proximity Bias
Flex work has many benefits, but the chance of encountering proximity bias can increase when employees differ in the amount of face-time they’re putting in at the office. Proximity bias is where managers give preference to those employees they see more often, inadvertently or not, even if the work produced by remote workers is the same.
Having established criteria written down for what’s expected of every job at every grade level can help you ward against this by providing a stable benchmark for all employees. Over time, you can track internal data to make sure remote or more-hybrid employees are not forgotten or considered for promotions or rewards.
Employees appreciate transparency and trust from their employer, so communicate openly with people about why, if, and how the organization is returning to the office.
If you are moving to a hybrid work arrangement, it’s advisable to communicate the value your organization sees in that facetime. Whether you’re creating a one-day requirement or several days a week, it’s better to be specific about what your company wants to get out of being together beyond company culture. Perhaps certain meetings are better in a conference room than a Zoom call, or maybe you’re losing valuable in-person client meetings that help promote your business. Whatever the case, making sure that employees understand the why of going back to the office can help them see the value in disrupting their current status quo.
How to Prepare — For Employers
Employers have the difficult job of bringing employees back to the office in a positive and understanding manner, especially so that the workforce doesn’t suffer from poor morale or experience additional stress from this lifestyle change. Here are some things leaders can do to make this adjustment easier.
- Make an effort to support employees. For a lot of people, moving back to the office can be emotionally, mentally, and logistically complicated—it can affect family life, vacation time, personal wellness, and more. To support employees, try to understand what their needs are and what they are losing so that you can try to supplement those losses and protect their wellness.
- Look for opportunities to improve the workday. The work environment has always made a big impact on productivity and morale, so if there are updates to the office that add to the comfort of the workforce, that may make the office more appealing. You can also try having luncheons, playing music if/when appropriate, hosting a raffle occasionally, etc. Make coming into the office worth it for employees, too.
- Offer fun benefits and incentives to employees. Many employers have used unique benefit ideas to highlight the advantages of returning to work in person. You can add a commuter benefit that contributes to the cost of commuting to the office, adjust your PTO policy to retain flexibility in schedules, or offer access to a gym or fitness center.
How to Prepare — For Employees
Returning to the office can be a big adjustment for employees, but there are things you can do too in order to make this process less of a hassle.
- Readjust schedules. Many people get used to setting their own schedules when they work remotely, which may not be as widely available when in-office hours are reinstated. This may require employees to change set routines with friends and family, adjust when they go shopping or work out, and modify when they are available within working hours.
- Plan for commutes. A big change may be the commute, which takes both time and money. Employees need to budget for the gasoline and time it takes to travel to and from work.
- Prepare to communicate effectively. Any change in processes or systems is going to require even more communication than normal, including moving back into the office.
- Get to know any new team members. Making work friends or getting to know new coworkers is a great way to become more comfortable at work and reap some of the rewards of an in-office environment.
- Prioritize self-care. There are social and emotional impacts of returning to the office after years of working from home, so employees should still be encouraged to take care of themselves and their families.
- Have an open mind. Employees that are open-minded to the idea of in-office work may find that they can focus better, separate their personal time from work, and enjoy more social interaction.
Meeting Your Employees’ Needs Anywhere They Are
Even if you decide your company will benefit from bringing back in-office work days, it’s a shift that will require extra effort for your employees. Commuting or arranging childcare is additional work employees need to do in order to meet in-office requirements, and this can create stress. Prioritizing their wellbeing by rolling out additional supports at this time can help smooth the transition.
Every employee has different needs, so consider pulling from a variety of support programs for your workforce. You could offer flexible gym subscriptions that help people exercise near their home or by the office, or add childcare stipends to your benefits package. In-office perks can help as well, like free lunch-and-learns that offer professional development while saving employees the cost of eating out for lunch.
Gympass lets you meet employees wherever they are on their wellbeing journey. Our flexible monthly subscription gives employees access to thousands of fitness studios and wellness apps. Speak with a wellbeing specialist today about how we can help support your workforce, whether they're working from home or at your office!
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The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.