Returning to the office after more than two years of working remotely marks another significant shift in how we work—and it brings with it some major opportunities. Learn how to implement a thoughtful return-to-office plan that will boost collaboration and connection—and help your employees do great work in an in-office, post-pandemic world.
The pandemic showed us that working remotely has its benefits (hello, no commute time!)—but it also has drawbacks. According to our research, employees prefer doing skilled work and attending large meetings from home. For everything else, they prefer the office.
Workers agree; despite the move to remote work, we found that workers still prefer the office for interpersonal, collaborative work. The bottom line? Returning to office has major perks—it’s just a question of implementing the return correctly.
As you consider whether it’s the right time to return to office—and how to do it safely—it’s important to think about how to bring workers back in a way that encourages connection while allowing them to capitalize on the flexibility they’ve come to love from remote work. Let’s take a look at how you can help your team get great work done, together and apart.
As COVID swept through the country in the early months of 2020, the shift to remote-only work for non-essential workers was abrupt. The attempt to transition back to some form of in-office work, however, has been less across-the-board—while some companies implemented abrupt return-to-office policies, others companies have been less linear with their plans.
Though research from Microsoft suggests that a broad return to office is coming, the when and how are up to debate. Nevertheless, 50% of leaders say their company requires or plans to require employees to return to office on a full-time basis in 2022.
Whether you're planning to implement a full-time back-to-office policy or a hybrid work policy, the change presents a big shift for workers. In fact, employees in the post-pandemic work world aren’t shy about directly linking their company loyalty to remote work options: Gallup found that 54% of remote-only employees and 36% of hybrid employees said they would look for a new job if their employer stopped offering remote work options.
But returning to office also presents major opportunities for companies and employees, especially around increasing worker collaboration and engagement after two years of functioning remotely. Research shows that employees actually prefer hybrid work to fully remote work, since it gives them the opportunity to socialize with colleagues while still capitalizing on the flexibility and focus time they get at home.
The truth is, there’s no “right time” to return to office—and no streamlined process to get you there. And while that might sound overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be—for your company or your employees. The key is putting a policy in place that reflects employees’ post-pandemic needs, solves common office challenges, and facilitates in-office opportunities.
Workers have spoken, and they love hybrid work. Our research shows that while workers prefer doing skilled work at home, they prefer being in-office for collaborative tasks, such as onboarding, 1:1 meetings, strategy planning, and training and development. What’s more, workers see the office as a place to engage and socialize, with 49% saying that they see the office as more of a social space than they used to.
For companies looking to bring employees back to office, this means there’s a unique opportunity to create an intentional, purposeful in-office schedule that encourages collaboration and helps teams work together. To start, listen to employee feedback about how they prefer to work, and then build your return-to-office plan in an intentional way that connects to company values and meets employee needs.
Here are a few other ways to make your return-to-office plan purposeful:
Connect your reasons for returning to the office to your organization’s business objectives to give employees a clear idea of why returning to office is important and how it plays into the company’s larger strategy.
Listen—and respond—to employee feedback regarding return to office, including introducing multiple ways to receive feedback, such as anonymous forms, weekly updates, company all-hands, and “ask me anything” sessions with leaders.
Develop an intentional return-to-office strategy by asking questions around the purpose for returning to office, if every employee needs to return to the office based on job or team functions, and what the driving force behind the return-to-office plan is.
Be flexible with your plans to return to the office based on your discussions with employees.
Concerns about COVID exposure remain high on workers’ list of anxieties around returning to office. According to the Pew Research Center, 42% of workers whose workplaces are currently open cited concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus as a major reason why they’re working from home all or most of the time. What’s more, fewer than half of workers say they’re very satisfied with the steps their workplace has taken to keep them safe from COVID.
The TL;DR? Despite the lower severity of current variants, workers are still concerned about potential COVID exposure at the office. There are a few ways you can address these concerns and safely welcome workers back to the office, including:
Develop and communicate in-office health and safety protocols, such as physical distancing guidelines.
Welcome employee feedback on safety protocols and make changes to your plans as necessary.
Be flexible and realistic with your decision-making approach and return-to-office timeline as circumstances evolve.
Pay attention to local laws and guidance regarding mandates and vaccination requirements.
Establish and communicate an exposure-response plan in the event of a COVID positive occurrence in the office.
Be flexible and create exceptions for workers with concerns, such as the immunocompromised or those with unvaccinated children.
One of the major benefits to come out of the work-from-home migration was an improved work-life balance, since the removal of extra time getting ready in the morning and long commutes meant more time for families and hobbies. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 64% of employees who are currently working from home at least some of the time due to the pandemic said that working from home has made it easier to balance their work and personal lives.
The good news? Hybrid work schedules offer workers these perks while also encouraging collaboration and connection that only in-office work can provide. Our research found that Gen Z and millennials prefer hybrid work because it balances the social aspect of the office with the focus time they feel at home, suggesting that a shift toward hybrid work could be the answer as companies look to balance in-office benefits with employee needs.
Here’s how to help your employees maintain their work-life balance when returning to the office:
Ease employees back into in-office work by communicating your return-to-office timeline well in advance and allocating time for a transition period.
Offer flexible work options if possible, such as a hybrid work schedule, synchronous in-office and WFH days, or the ability for employees to set their hours.
Implement mental health and well-being initiatives, such as offering mental health days, developing an employee assistance program, providing coaching and professional development programs, or offering workplace fitness and nutrition assistance.
Provide benefits to ease the transition back to office, such as a commuter stipend or meal options to combat “lunchflation.”
While employees report a greater overall work-life balance as a result of remote work, they also say that the shift to working from home blurred the lines between their work and home lives—a somewhat unsurprising consequence of working where you live. According to our research, 37% of employees said their days don’t have a clear start or finish time, and 35% said they spent more time checking emails outside of working hours this year compared to last year.
For some, these blurred boundaries are likely to continue as remote or hybrid work becomes the norm. As you solidify your company’s return-to-office plan, look for ways to set clear divides between work and home life. A few ways to help your employees set clear work boundaries include:
Give workdays clear start and finish times, so they know they’re not expected to work when they’re off the clock.
Establish a meeting-free day to give workers heads-down time for heavy work.
Encourage your employees to take time off and actually disconnect during their OOO time.
Lead by example by not sending or responding to after-hour emails and using your PTO days.
Working from home full-time may have given workers more “me time” at the start and end of each day, but it also created a disconnect between individuals and coworkers. Between the rise of Zoom fatigue and the lack of natural, spontaneous in-office interactions, employees who went fully remote due to the pandemic struggled to maintain work connections. In fact, our research discovered that 41% of workers feel more isolated when working remotely.
Luckily, returning to office full-time or on a hybrid basis will help re-establish and foster the sense of workplace community and connection that has diminished over the last two years. It's important to be intentional with scheduling when returning to the office to ensure employees aren’t overwhelmed and don’t fall back into poor pre-pandemic office habits, like unproductive meetings.
Here’s how to help facilitate connections between employees once they’re back in office:
Plan COVID-safe back-to-office events to encourage collaboration and facilitate new members meeting one another.
Be purposeful with how you schedule in-person collaboration. According to our research, workers prefer attending large meetings from home and the office for 1:1 meetings, training, and strategy development. Schedule meetings intentionally to ensure they’re useful and productive.
Host informal meetings, such as walking meetings, coffee chats, or open office hours.
Encourage or schedule synchronous in-office work for members of the same teams.
Let’s be clear: it’s time to ditch the cubicle. Re-imagining workspaces to create inviting work environments that encourage collaboration and productivity is a must as employees transition back to the office.
Spaces that facilitate collaboration and communication—like open-seating plans, conference rooms equipped with remote-friendly technology options, and comfortable break rooms—are in-demand. Similarly, amenities that promote well-being can all help foster a sense of community in the workplace.
At the same time, it’s important to think about how to collaborate safely—after all, working in-person will probably feel a little scary after two years of talking about social distance and mask-wearing. When updating your space, think about the safety precautions you can take to make your workforce feel safe and supported.
Here are a few ways to reimagine your physical office space to meet post-COVID demands:
Survey your employees on what office enhancements would help them get their best work done in the workplace, and look into implementing the changes where possible.
Facilitate collaboration by removing physical silos and creating flexible workspaces that promote connection.
Update your office areas that facilitate social connection, such as collaboration zones, break spaces, and community areas.
Create “third places”—working spaces that are neither the home nor a traditional office—in your office by adding coffee carts, outdoor spaces, libraries, or lounge areas.
Take safety precautions, like implementing a strict cleaning schedule, ensuring significant airflow, and enforcing capacity limits.
Consider rearranging the office layout to allow for social distancing—for example, by spreading out desks or leaving every other desk empty.
From helping employees stay connected to streamlining hybrid work practices like hot-desking, investing in the right technology is crucial to implementing a successful return-to-office plan. Here are a few ways to make your tech work for your return to office:
Introduce software to support the hybrid working model, such as office capacity management tools or hoteling software.
Upgrade your existing tech to promote easy collaboration by focusing on technology that supports decentralized workers, such as document management and file sharing tools, as well as cloud computing options.
Integrate workflow and project management tools that help increase collaboration, streamline communication, and keep projects on track—no matter where you’re working.
Upgrade your remote communication tools, like video conferencing software and communication apps.
Invest in technology that promotes health and safety, such as pre-entry wellness checks, contactless guest check-in, voice-enabled tech, and autonomous cleaning technology.
Upgrade your cybersecurity protocols and implement new cybersecurity initiatives designed to lower the risk posed by a decentralized workforce.
Returning to the office after more than two years away represents another significant shift in the way we work. It’s no surprise that setting up and implementing a return to office plan can feel overwhelming—but it doesn’t have to.
Companies that listen to employee needs and implement flexible processes are poised to succeed in the post-pandemic world. A successful return-to-office plan that’s purposeful, flexible, and focuses on facilitating collaboration will boost employee morale, create a sense of workplace community, and build a more engaged workforce.
Whether you’re implementing a synchronous hybrid work schedule, allowing for more flexible hours, or asking your team to fully return to the office, you need a tool that can streamline collaboration and centralize your work.
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