The Many Facets of "Return to Office" Decisions

The Many Facets of “Return to Office” Decisions

Recently I’ve noticed a heated debate going on in my newsfeed.  As the pandemic transformed the way we live and work, many businesses had to quickly adjust their remote work policies – a decision with both benefits and drawbacks.  The conversations around when (or whether) to return to the office have been complex as professionals on both sides have valid points.  

On one hand you have employers, many of whom are paying for expensive office space and want to return to a sense of normalcy (whatever that is anymore!), where employees can have in-person meetings and the office water cooler (or soda machine) becomes a gathering place again.  On the other hand, you have employees who feel they are the most productive working remotely and are happy to get their drinks from their own refrigerator (maybe while letting the dog out or tossing in a load of laundry)!  

Working in the office has many benefits:  it can help improve communication, foster collaboration among employees, it’s easier to call an impromptu meeting or brainstorm when your employees are gathered in one place, and it helps foster company culture. And some people are more productive in an office setting where they might be free from household distractions, can bounce ideas off colleagues, and have the resources they need at their fingertips.   

There are also many benefits to working remotely. Many people are more productive at home without the distractions of those same colleagues bouncing ideas off them (you see that Catch 22?). With fewer meetings to attend and fewer distractions, they are better able to focus on the work, leading to increased productivity. According to Global Workplace Analytics businesses lose $600 billion a year as a result of distraction in the workplace.  

The personal time gains are also significant – without added commutes employees have more time for work, themselves, and their families. This is especially important given the high cost of housing which has forced many employees to move farther from work, increasing their commute times.  Working from home provides flexibility which improves work/life balance.  The results are higher productivity, higher commitment and motivation to work, and lower absenteeism.  

Managers are tasked with understanding what employees want and then balancing that with what is best for the company. No small task!  

If your company is considering returning staff to the office, even part time, it is essential to include employee input in the decision-making process.  Failure to do this can result in employee resistance, increased turnover, and disengagement.  When doing this, make sure you:  

  1. Communicate the change early and often. – Solicit input and feedback loops through surveys and other mechanisms. Make sure you clearly communicate company decisions when it comes to returning to the office. Give clear timelines. Three years into the pandemic means that your employees have created routines and are used to working remotely. Give them an opportunity to process the news and make arrangements for their return. This is especially important for those caring for others as they will need to make decisions that impact time and finances – and the people they care for.   
  1. Be flexible – while it may be important to you to have employees return to office, it may be just as important to your employees to be remote. A combination of working from home and the office may be the solution your company needs to keep employees engaged while meeting the goal of returning to the office.  Consider offering hybrid working models and give your employees flexibility in start and end times.  Allowing employees to decide their own start time (within a range) may be what individuals need to be able to return to the office seamlessly and avoid long commutes.  
  1. Change often leads to resistance. It’s a natural human reaction.  Return to office is like any other major change in an organization, so the use of Change Management principles is needed for a smooth transition.  Applying Change Management techniques keeps the employee view in focus and considers all areas that will be impacted. Managing the change well will unpack and address reasons for resistance, support company goals and values and provide a framework to successfully achieve these steps of a well-designed change plan:   
  • Build a team of champions.
  • Use people data to determine how your people are likely to react.
  • Uncover and address reasons for resistance.   
  • Implement an action plan.  

When companies offer systems of support, understanding and flexibility, employees are more receptive to the benefits of working from the office.  This should be viewed as an opportunity to enhance collaboration, reinforce company culture, and increase communication and understanding between leaders, colleagues, and customers.  

Good luck in your endeavor to determine the right way to return employees to the office. Keep your people in mind first and the best decisions will come to you. 

This article was originally published by Adrienne Guerrero on LinkedIn.


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