The return-to-office (RTO) debate is on everyone’s mind. Leaders wonder if team performance will rise as they finally return. Companies everywhere are weighing the pros and cons of RTO.

We’ve been through this before, as companies prepared to return before new variants emerged. But now, some companies are getting more serious about making the switch. 

Is it the right time for your workplace to return to the office? We don’t believe there’s one right or wrong answer to that question. Rather, the right choice for you depends on a number of factors. We help you assess how returning to work could affect your organization. We also take a look at what some of the big players are doing.

Then, you’ll be equipped to make the right choice for your company.

Navigation

1. Pros and Cons of Returning to the Office

2. The Current Return to Office Landscape

3. Planning for A Return to the Office

Pros and Cons of Returning to the Office

Let’s look at various factors that are influencing companies’ return to office. Then, we’ll look at reasons why some are not opting to return. 

Benefits of Going Back to the Office

Diverse group of employees who have happily returned to the office
Credit: Fauxels/Pexels

Return-to-office proponents cite the social aspects of returning to work. We discuss them along with other benefits here.

Enhancing Networking and Relationship-Building Opportunities.

Face-to-face time at work can spark connections and enhance relationships. Chance encounters at work can lead to greater camaraderie.

Establishing Boundaries Between Work and Life

Working in an office can set clear boundaries between work and home life. For some employees, this aids in finding a better balance between the two.

Fostering Collaboration

Conversation and collaboration can feel easier in person. Ideas may flow more readily. People tend to feel more at ease. And coworkers can more easily ask one another questions.

Instilling a Strong Company Mission and Culture

Employees who work in one location may have a stronger culture. Also, new hires may more easily pick up on that culture. And everyone may have a more implicit focus on the mission. “Being around a group of people who are working toward a common mission reinforces that goal in everyone in the workplace,” writes Harvard Business Review.

Of course, some companies have found ways to enjoy these benefits remotely. Collaborative tools have boosted productivity. Plus, some teams are meeting up intentionally for collaboration at set times. CNBC points out that these benefits haven’t been proven. In many cases, they’re based on preexisting beliefs of leaders.

And despite these benefits, some companies still aren’t ready to return. Let’s explore the main reasons for their hesitance.

Drawbacks of RTO

Man driving to return to office
Credit: Jéshoots/Pexels

A recent survey found that 52% of employees want to permanently work remotely. Only 3% want to return to the office full-time, Advanced Workplace Associates found. And 86% want to work remotely at least two days per week. For these reasons, offering remote work options (or policies) could attract new hires as well.

Why do so many employees want to work remotely (or in a hybrid model)? Let’s look at why some employees and companies want to stay remote.

Bringing Back Commutes

Many employees had to make long commutes when working in the office. Some parents assert that RTO means missing out on family time. For many, working from home has improved quality of life.

Raising Health Concerns

COVID-19 still poses some degree of risk, especially for immunocompromised people. As a result, some employees may feel safer staying at home. 

Increasing Overhead Costs

Cost can play a major role in deciding whether to return to the office. Some companies have greatly reduced their overhead by cutting office costs. Especially for smaller ones, that can be a big deal. Others are considering reducing or eliminating their office expenses moving forward.

Importantly, productivity has remained high through the period of working remotely. For some companies, that means the drawbacks of RTO outweigh the benefits. 

The Current Return to Office Landscape

Many large, well-known companies are adopting different policies on returning to the office. But embracing a partial return to office is perhaps the most common approach. In fact, hybrid workplaces appear to be fast becoming the new normal. 

Let’s look at how this plays out in a range of companies.

Google

Google is requiring employees to return to office three days a week. In this hybrid model, Google offers “collaborative spaces” where remote and in-house employees can work together.

Duolingo

Duolingo has also required employees to come to the office three days a week, NPR reports. Everyone must come in on Wednesday and two other days of their choice. 

Apple

Apple has also established a hybrid RTO model. Originally, it planned to have employees return three days a week. However, it backed up a few steps to take a more cautious approach. Now, it’s planning to have some employees return two days a week. It’s considering this a pilot program and not making return to office mandatory.

Twitter

Twitter has long said it would let employees work from home permanently. Parag Agrawal, their new CEO, has reaffirmed this commitment. But the company has reopened offices so employees can come in if they choose. At the same time, Agrawal asserts that hybrid work will bring new challenges that remote didn’t.

Those tuning into meetings from home may struggle to feel like part of the group, for instance.

Some big finance corporations have been especially committed to a return to office. Goldman Sachs planned to call all employees back to the office five days a week. Now, attendance ranges from 50 to 60%. Younger employees appear to be especially resistant to the change. Clearly, returning to work can be a process!

JP Morgan says that only half of its employees will work in office five days a week. Despite being another “hybrid-work holdout,” it’s adapting to employees’ needs.

Likewise, many federal agencies are calling staff back to the office part-time. Many are allowing employees to work remotely several days a week. For instance, the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department is limiting the number of mandatory in-office days. (At the same time, many VA employees work in health care and must come to the office.) 

Some agencies, like the Forest Service, are bringing leaders back first. Then, they’re pursuing a phased return to office for employees. Individuals at the Forest Service may have remote work agreements, depending on their role.

Planning for A Return to the Office

Perhaps after weighing the pros and cons, you’ve decided it’s time. How should you prepare? These key strategies will help you make a safe and productive return to work.

Make the Business Case for Returning

What’s your rationale for returning to the office? Make sure you can articulate it clearly to leaders and employees. Do you feel it will boost morale and productivity? See if performance management data backs you up on that.

Hear Employees’ Concerns

Your company’s success hinges on employees’ job satisfaction. So, ask them what they want. Send out an employee survey to gauge how they feel about returning. Ask the hard questions, like whether they’d consider leaving their job due to an RTO policy. And ask open-ended questions about how you can accommodate their needs.

Provide Details on Safety Protocol

Don’t just dash off an email saying, “We’re going back to the office!” Instead, create a thoughtful letter explaining your RTO procedure and safety guidelines. Tell them what precautions you’ll take, so they’ll feel safe. For instance, will you limit the size of group meetings and add space between desks? SHRM offers helpful templates for this purpose.

“The perception of safety is as important as safety itself. Be as transparent as possible with employees about any changes in the risk of transmission,” Gartner urges. “Consider a simple communication tool such as a green/yellow/red rating to communicate the risk of exposure to coronavirus at a given facility on a given day.”

Offer a Menu of Options

For many companies, it’s not an “either/or” decision—it’s both. Many companies, like those discussed above, are embracing the approach of radical flexibility, Fast Company notes. This simply means that employees can choose when to work remotely. Others are setting specific days for working in house (like DuoLingo).

They might stagger the days when employees come in or set certain days for everyone. 

Choose Adaptable Tools

Use tools that work from anywhere. For example, make sure you can access your performance management software at home or in office. (Primalogik’s software is equally effective in both contexts, for instance.) And store info in a safe cloud-based system so you can access it from home. 

Beware of Proximity Bias

If you allow for a hybrid return to work, beware of proximity bias, Fast Company warns. That means giving preferential treatment to employees who work on site.

Have a Plan for Re-exit

Set a plan for how to go fully remote again if need be. Which functions could most easily start working at home right away? Perhaps they could re-exit while a select few employees stay in-office. Set a protocol for responding to different risk levels.

What If Employees Don’t Want to Return

Sometimes employees don’t respond well to a full return to office. According to one survey, 77% of managers believe employees who refuse to return to the office should face severe consequences. 

But we believe that’s the wrong approach. 

You don’t want to upset or scare employees. That would alienate them rather than bringing them on board. 

Some companies have pressured their employees into a too-speedy return to the office. Remember that we’re in an extremely competitive labour market. That means employees have a lot of leverage in this situation. If employees resist a return to office, try backing up a few steps. Make RTO optional, or adopt a creative solution.

Consider having employees come in for collaborative purposes only. They’re likely to appreciate your flexibility.

Remember, those who resist coming in to work may eventually be lured back. They’ll hear about coworkers enjoying office camaraderie and may wish to come in at least part-time. 

Yes, return to work can be a contentious issue. But this advice will help you to handle it delicately. Most importantly, continue taking time to listen to employees’ concerns. As an employer, continue striving to adapt to their needs as they adapt to the new normal. With the right approach, you’ll reach an agreement that everyone feels good about.

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