Strategies for Assuaging Employee Resistance to Return to Office
Workspan Daily
October 21, 2022
Key Takeaways

  • Return-to-office resistance. Recent research finds that employees are refusing to comply with return-to-office mandates and are likely to switch jobs if asked to do so.  
  • Flexibility is key. Ultimately, whether employers opt for a hybrid model or full-time onsite schedule, flexibility in the approach is paramount for it to have the intended effect. 
  • Strong communication. Employers must prepare a clear communication strategy for why a return to the office is beneficial to the organization and employees.  
  • Providing incentives. Compensation incentives along with perks/non-monetary incentives are an effective short-term strategy to assuage employees’ hesitance to return to the office.  

Many businesses that had grand plans of their employees returning to the office at some point in 2021 were stifled by lingering COVID-19 concerns. Thus, those return-to-office plans were pushed to 2022, as large companies such as Citigroup, BNY Mellon. Google and Twitter were among the first to announce return strategies.  

However, some employees aren’t complying with these return-to-office plans or are doing so kicking and screaming. A Reli Exchange survey of 1,000 employees found that of those facing a return-to-office mandate, 26% are refusing to adhere to the mandate.  

And while much of the resistance in 2021 was based on health and safety concerns, this year organizations are receiving pushback from employees who simply don’t see the purpose of returning and have grown accustomed to the convenience of doing work from a home office.  

A Gallup study found that approximately 56% of full-time employees in the U.S. believe their job can be done working remotely from home. Of those employees, 20% are working entirely on-site and 50% are working a hybrid schedule (split between remote and on-site work). Additionally, Gallup’s research indicates that fully remote work arrangements are expected to continue decreasing from three in 10 remote-capable employees in June, down to two in 10 for the long term, despite 34% wanting to permanently work from home. 

Deloitte’s “Return to Workplaces Survey” found that the majority of the workforce does not want to return to 100% in-office work, with more than half saying they would consider leaving their jobs if they are not given some form of flexibility in where and when they work.  

The common refrain from employers eager to get their employees back in the office is that it will be conducive to more collaboration and improve the organizational culture. While these are noble aims not without merit, workplace experts caution adopting a mandated, full-time return model, as this threatens to erode the trust of employees, in turn undermining the culture along with it.  

“While employers can mandate employees to return to the office, it is perhaps wiser to take a softer approach to avoid losing significant portions of staff or key employees to less prescriptive competitors,” Deloitte’s human capital team told Workspan Daily. “The hybrid, work-from-anywhere workforce is here for the foreseeable future, and organizations that do not embrace it could experience significant retention, engagement, and talent acquisition challenges.”  

Elsie Tai, vice president of Occupational Health and Safety Services Group at NFP, echoed this sentiment and said it’s best for employers to remain flexible in their approach.   

“Consider the risk of your best, or better staff being poached by your competitor, in addition to losing staff or maintaining disgruntled staff,” Tai said. “A more accommodating office attendance policy may be able to keep the peace and maintain productivity. It may allow you to lure key talent and valuable staff from your own competitors who are insisting on a more rigid return-to-office policy.”  

Strategies for Employers  

While at least a modicum of flexibility should be applied to return-to-office plans, there are ways to entice employees who are resistant to the move away from full-time remote work.  

For organizations stopping short of an official hybrid model, communicating why and the value of working in the office is the starting point, Tai said.  

“It must be well conceived, address employee perspectives, with communications that is friendly and professional and considerations as to what maintaining one’s ‘corporate culture’ actually means,” she explained. “New expectations and realizations about work have evolved immensely. All this can impact the state of labor relations in the organization against the backdrop of your return-to-office strategy. Good labor relations are critical to recruiting and retaining talent, maintaining a decent level of moral, teamwork, communications, innovation and productivity.” 

Once a clear, strategic communication plan is established, organizations should also find ways to incentivize employees returning to the office. Tai said employers could offer sign-on bonuses to prospective employees, retention bonuses to existing employees and attendance incentives for in-office work among other things.  

While compensation incentives are certainly appealing, non-monetary benefits such as free meals, snacks and additional time-off could serve as a nice complement. Deloitte’s human capital team noted one such initiative by a client called “Puppies and Pizza,” where employees had the opportunity to pet puppies and receive free pizza during their lunch break at the office.  

Deloitte’s team provided the caveat, however, that perks such as these are effective in the short term to ease the transition back to the office, but organizations looking to return to more regular office work should have a bigger-picture approach.  

“Right now, these incentives are still shiny and new, but over time employers may not be able to sustain them and/or employees may feel entitled to them,” Deloitte said. “It is important to consider how employees will be kept engaged over the long-term and continue to be motivated to come into the office, even after these short-term incentives have disappeared.”  

Ultimately, whether employers opt for a hybrid model or full-time onsite schedule, flexibility in the approach is paramount for it to have the intended effect.  

“It is important to strike the balance of empowering employees with the flexibility to work from where and when they wish, whilst also providing guidelines that create a working model that will ensure success for the company,” Deloitte said. “Employers might consider providing options for different hybrid schedules and allowing workers to choose which one works best for them and their team.” 

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