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5 Ways to Get Employees Back to the Office

Published 10 months ago • 6 min read

If you pay any attention to workplace news and trends, you’re probably aware that some companies are reversing their stance on remote working and requiring employees to return to the office. You’re probably also aware that employees are largely opposed to this, and many feel their employers haven’t provided a good reason for the return-to-office mandate.

The widespread resistance from employees has generally translated into poor office attendance, especially at companies with flexible policies. But it’s clear some organizations are getting frustrated with this, and that’s why we’re seeing story after story about companies who are resorting to more desperate measures to entice (or force) workers back to the office.

Salesforce, for example, is donating $10 per day to charity for each day an employee goes into the office. Other companies are dangling free food and live concerts to incentivize workers, while some are resorting to more “normal” tactics such as increasing commuter benefits or relaxing their dress code.

A few companies are taking things a step further by putting consequences in place for workers who don’t comply. Last month, Google announced that it will begin using in-person attendance as part of employees’ performance reviews. Similarly, CitiGroup’s managers have been told to consider compliance with office attendance policies when rating employees’ performance and crafting pay packages.

Overall, these tactics have been hit-or-miss, and for good reason. Employees really don’t want to commute into work just to sit at a desk and accomplish the same tasks they could do more comfortably at home. Many would be greatly inconvenienced by having to go into the office full-time, and some might not even be local to their corporate offices anymore. In fact, it’s estimated that around 5 million people relocated because of remote work.

Workers are so desperate to avoid the office that nearly 1 out of 3 would be willing to take a pay cut to work remotely full-time. What’s more, nearly 7 in 10 (68%) would rather look for a new job than return to the office. At a few companies, including Amazon, Farmers Group, and Walt Disney, employees are so fed-up that they’re signing petitions and staging protests.

No matter how you feel about the return-to-office push, these statistics and examples highlight that most companies simply aren’t getting this right. In my opinion (and many other experts’ opinions), there has to be a better way to go about this. That’s why in today’s article, I’ll discuss 5 ways to get your employees to spend more time in the office — let’s take a look.

1. Avoid punishing people

Companies are well within their rights to ask employees to come back to the office. But if that’s the case, then why are we seeing so much backlash? A recent Inc. article aptly summarized the issue: “The way you bring people back matters, and if you find yourself meeting significant resistance, it doesn't mean your policy is bad, but it definitely means you have some work to do.”

The article adds, “Ultimately, if you find that you have to force your employees to come back to the office, you have a bigger problem than where they work. Your real problem is that you've lost control of your culture. That's the one thing no company should ever do.”

This is something leaders should keep in mind if they’re contemplating punishing people for a lack of office attendance. This approach is almost certainly going to result in disgruntled employees, and it will affect how they feel about your company and the effort they put into their jobs. A better approach, as I’ll discuss next, is to focus on incentivizing people instead.

2. Offer the incentives employees really want

If your company truly wants employees to feel positively about going back into the office, then it’s a good idea to make it worth their while. Think: incentives that offer significant monetary value, benefits that help workers maintain some of the work-life balance they enjoy when working remotely, or on-site perks that make the office a more appealing place to work.

One study found that flexible working hours and a four-day workweek are two of the top perks employees would want in exchange for coming back to work. Other desirable incentives include stipends for gas, meals, and childcare. Employees would also be more enticed to go into the office if their commute was included in their working hours, if they were allowed to take longer lunch breaks, and if they were given more PTO.

When it comes to on-site incentives, employees said they’d like to have their own office space and be able to bring their pets into work. Some would be interested in happy hours, catered lunches, and other special events, but most experts agree that these types of perks should be in addition to other, more impactful incentives your company could offer.

3. Prioritize socialization on office days

According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, 68% of leaders say that ensuring cohesion and social connections within teams has been a challenge due to the shift to hybrid. Employees’ own sentiments reflect this — 51% say their relationships outside their immediate work group have weakened and 43% say they feel disconnected from their company as a whole.

With this in mind, organizations should be prioritizing using the office to rebuild social capital among their workforce. However, some are mandating the return-to-office push for other reasons — perhaps because “everyone else is doing it,” or simply because leaders want to keep a closer eye on employees and ensure they’re being productive.

While productivity is absolutely essential, leaders should not lose sight of how important workplace connectedness is as well. When employees feel connected to each other and to their company, they’re more likely to go above-and-beyond, they’re more creative and innovative, and they’re less likely to leave their organization for another job.

4. Make socialization intentional

It’s one thing to say that you want your employees to use the office for socialization — it’s another thing entirely to provide the spaces and permission for them to do so. As a first step, you should ensure that there are common areas where people can gather, as well as meeting spaces that inspire collaboration and creativity.

You may also need to push for a cultural shift within your organization, to ensure that your team members can truly disconnect from e-mails and chats when they’re in the office. If workers feel they can’t step away from their laptops, they won’t be able to get any quality in-person time with their colleagues — and that defeats the whole point.

Lastly, consider offering scheduled social or networking events from time-to-time. This is especially helpful for new hires, who may struggle to integrate with their new colleagues. These types of events are also a good idea if you have a large number of entry-level employees, since their careers can greatly benefit from having access to networking opportunities.

5. Offer the right mix of spaces

Although I’ve focused on the social aspects of the workplace, there are other reasons why employees might want to go into their company’s offices. Some workers may have a living situation that isn’t ideal for remote work — think multiple roommates or family members, or an environment that’s noisy or cramped. Others may simply feel more productive in the office.

If your offices mostly center around promoting group interactions, workers won’t want to go in if what they really need is a space where they can focus. In fact, research from Gensler finds that although employees still want their offices to allow for individual work, workplaces’ effectiveness for supporting individual work has declined to the lowest levels since they started measuring this in 2008.

The ideal solution? Offer a range of work settings, from quiet zones and focus rooms to innovation hubs and maker spaces. However, if you can’t accommodate all of these, Gensler found that providing just two types of environments — spaces for creative group work as well as individual quiet work — has the greatest impact on space effectiveness and experience.

Rethinking the return to the office

While I’m not fundamentally opposed to requiring employees to go back into the office, I think employers will need to meet employees in the middle on this particular issue. This means making it worthwhile for them to go in, and ensuring they have access to spaces that are more (not less!) appealing than their home environment.

It’s also critical that leaders are as transparent as possible with their team members about why they want them back in the office, and how this could help workers as well as the organization. The return-to-office push could truly be beneficial for both parties, but it’s up to employers to navigate this more effectively.

Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this week’s article!

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