One of the success stories of the pandemic has been the adoption of remote work. A January 2021 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that 83% of employers say remote work has been successful for their company. That’s a 10% increase from a June 2020 survey.
It’s a case of good news/bad news. While some companies survived because of the strength of their remote-work initiatives, getting employees to head back to the office has its own challenges. In fact, another January survey, by LiveCareer, found that one-third of workers would quit before going back to the office full-time.
“We now know that remote work is good for many things, but not everything,” says global HR analyst Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte. At the same time, companies are going to need to balance the needs of employees with the company’s plans to get people back to the office and happy about being there, he says.
Start with safety
The number one issue that has to be managed before employees come back to the office is safety, says Tami Simon, the corporate consulting leader and senior vice president at Segal, a human resources and employee benefits consulting company. “Above all else, employees need to feel safe: physically, mentally, and financially. Employers should transparently describe how they plan to make their workplace a safe place,” she says. In addition to the physical measures companies need to take, employees need to feel like they won’t face consequences for expressing their needs or feeling reluctant to head back to the office, she says.
Some of their concerns can be quelled by communicating the company’s physical safety initiatives and policies, says Jikku Venkat, chief technology officer and cofounder of infectious disease management software platform ReturnSafe. Those may include symptom checks, physical distancing of workspaces, staggered scheduling, testing, personal protective equipment requirements, enhanced cleaning, and others.
“It’s important for you to have a very systematic approach and not something ad hoc with respect to these protocols,” he says. And while these may seem like straightforward actions, many companies still haven’t figured out their own approach, Bersin adds.
For employees to feel comfortable—let alone motivated—to return to the office, they have to know what to expect, says HR consultant Brenda Neckvatal. So, as you make decisions about what your in-office or hybrid schedules will look like, keep your team in the loop. (PwC’s research found that more than half of employees (55%) want to work remotely at least three days per week, while more than two-thirds of executives (68%) want employees in the office at least three days per week.)
It’s a good idea to communicate policies, changes, and expectations across different platforms, such as employee emails, manager meetings, and even internal podcasts. This is another period of rapid change, and your team needs help anticipating what’s next, she says.
As you discuss plans with employees, you’re likely to get their opinions about what’s happening. Handle this well, Neckvatal emphasizes. “Either your organization moves forward with it, or if they don’t, at least circle back and let them know that you appreciate them giving suggestions,” she says. It helps them feel appreciated and that their contributions matter.
Recognize that your employees have changed
The folks who are coming back to your newly distanced cubicles aren’t the same as the folks who left a year ago, Simon says. Before the pandemic, companies such as banks and insurance firms may not only have discouraged remote work but prohibited it because of security concerns. Now, not only has remote work become mainstream, but it’s happened during a crisis. Employees’ lives were often laid bare in the background of Zoom calls. Accommodations were made for the work-life collision and employees are going to expect more of the same going forward, whether they’re in the office or not, Bersin says.
One of his clients used to spend every Friday commuting about five hours round-trip to a staff meeting. Now, the meeting is a videoconference. “She said, ‘For some reason, we never did that before. It was never accepted,'” he recalls. Now, she expects the Zoom call will become the norm and they’ll find ways to get face time in other ways.
Look for new benefits needs
Employees may also have new benefits needs, Simon says. Those may range from added mental health support to caregiving assistance to financial wellness and education. The best way to determine those needs and make sure your employees are getting the support they need is to take a serious look at your employee base. Talk to employees and find out their opinions, but also look at your benefits program through the lens of what your organization can offer and what investments will best support the most immediate needs your team has.
Bersin adds that shoring up your company’s wellness culture may be a good idea, too. “I come from the world where you just go to work and deal with it. But, in the last three to five years, the expectations of employees for well-being programs, mindfulness programs, rest, time off, breaks, and tools to help us schedule our time are very high,” he says. Your employees are likely to have new demands around quality of life, especially if they’re spending more time commuting to get back to the office.
Adapt your space
Create a space that people want to come back to, Simon suggests. That may include changes to the physical space and accommodating needs like standing desks to help employees avoid being sedentary all day. If you are going to rotate employees who are in and out of the office, you may wish to consider abandoning fixed desks and create workstations that can be shared. “This is an opportunity to reconsider how the work is done and where it’s done,” she says. Giving employees what they need, possibly including having their main workstation at home, will help them better adapt to the time spent in the office.
Use the power of FOMO
Once people feel safe and comfortable, there’s one aspect that may get lost in the “going back to the office” discussion: There can be many benefits. “[Employees] like the face-to-face contact. They like the personal relationships,” Bersin says. And some activities, like brainstorming new ideas or holding a rigorous planning meeting typically go better in person than via a videoconference, he adds.
Then, there’s the fun part: As work shifts back to normal and it’s safe to gather, office parties, get-togethers, and simple opportunities for reconnecting with our coworkers will be motivators for employees to return to the office. And once people start coming back and having in-person meetings, a measure of FOMO—fear of missing out—will likely prompt others to join them, he says.
And what about those companies that have gone all remote? Bersin has a prediction. “These companies that said, you can work from home for the rest of your life? They’re probably going to just undo that and say, ‘Yeah, we’re kind of, we’d like you guys to come back in now and then.'”