How to Navigate Bringing Employees Back to the Office
Workspan Daily
January 26, 2023
Key Takeaways

  • Changing tide of remote work. Recent research indicates that 90% of companies are requiring a physical return to work in 2023. 
  • Employee sentiment remains unchanged. Despite the push by employers to bring workers back to the office, more than 70 million employees say their jobs can be done from home. 
  • Mandated returns are ill-advised. Several prominent organizations have issued mandates for employees to return to the office by a certain date, which has been met with resistance by employees and workplace experts have advised against this approach, as it erodes the employee experience.  
  • Consider incentivizing in-office work. To entice employees, some organizations are now offering employees a variety of perks to return to the office. 

Goldman Sachs has long been among the most outspoken companies on the topic of getting its employees to return to the physical workplace. 

But early results have been mixed at best: After being ordered to return to work last March, only half of its 10,000 HQ workers actually showed up to work in person, despite having had over two weeks’ notice

That’s not a surprise when you consider a recent Gallup poll that found that approximately 56% of full-time employees in the United States — more than 70 million workers — say their job can be done remotely and only two in 10 say they currently work “entirely on-site.” 

Contrast this with a poll that found that 90% of companies will require employees to return to office in 2023, and you can begin to understand why 88% also say they are offering incentives to get employees to return, including catered meals, commuter benefits and higher pay. 

According to Jacky Turnbull, chief people officer at Topia, mandates are simply not an effective way to get workers back through the office door.  

“Mandating a full-time return-to-office is essentially a guaranteed way to frustrate your employees and hurt company productivity and morale,” she said.  

Welcome Back? 

The Gallup poll also found that “fully remote work arrangements are expected to continue decreasing from three in 10 remote-capable employees in June 2022, down to two in 10 for the long term, despite 34% of workers wanting to permanently work from home.” 

The often-cited benefits of onsite work include increased collaboration and building deeper connections with colleagues. So how can employers get their workers to want to return to the physical workspace after being away for so long?  

Read: Return-to-Office's New Balancing Act 

Many organizations have already adopted a hybrid model by designating certain days or times to be in the office while otherwise allowing employees to work remotely, and Turnbull predicted most companies will continue to offer flexible and hybrid options to stay competitive. 

“Flexibility on work location is now considered essential by many employees and companies simply cannot afford to lose their top performers amid economic uncertainty," she said. 

Indeed, six in 10 exclusively remote employees in Gallup’s poll said they are  “extremely likely to change companies” if not offered remote flexibility, while three in 10 hybrid employees are  “extremely likely to change companies” if not offered remote flexibility. 

Changing Minds 

Bjorn Reynolds, CEO at Safeguard Global, used to be one of the CEOs who preferred having employees in the office, but that changed in 2020.  

“Historically, the office was where great ideas were shared and where teams came together to pursue a common goal,”  he said “ However, the workforce has proven that productivity and engagement isn’t dependent upon being in an office and we’ve seen more leaders realizing the benefits of remote work.” 

Reynolds’ advice for employers trying to coax workers back into the office is somewhat counterintuitive: Don’t “coax” them at all.  

“Leaders cannot solve the needs of the modern workforce by turning back to old, traditional practices,” he said. “Return-to-office initiatives are no longer a best practice.”  

Such initiatives signal to the company’s workforce and other prospective candidates that the employer doesn't value or provide people-centric flexible work experiences, he explained.  

“I have learned that when employees are not forced to do things they don’t want to do — for example, commuting — they spend more time on the things they do want to do. The result is a happy, productive team with the freedom to do their job in a way that best suits them.” 

Turnbull agreed: “At the end of the day, mandating one specific workplace policy is not going to be the best solution for every single employee. But companies that embrace flexibility will come out on top — both in employee experience and talent retention/acquisition.” 

While Topia and Safeguard Global have both embraced hybrid work models, if your company really wants a full return to the office, it will be crucial to communicate “the why” of the initiative, Turnbull said. 

“Simply telling them to return to the office with no explanation, or worse, making employees return because you have empty offices that you are paying rent on, will not garner the best results,” she said. “Explain the value of face-to-face collaboration and in-office work, but ultimately, allow your employees to make a decision that works best for them.” 

Editor’s Note: Additional Content 

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