Is returning to the office truly necessary?
The pandemic has caused a big change in the business climate, where almost all offices had to be shut down. And after a long period of mandatory remote working, companies are slowly preparing for a return to office after Covid. But, similar to their workers, managers are also torn about the best way to approach this.
So, what does “return to office” exactly entail? What do employees think about going back to the office, how can companies make the experience better, and is it even necessary? Here, we compiled for you all about the return to office discussions.
Why are employees being forced to return to the office?
A proper ‘return’ to the office has been very much non-existent in most parts of the world, even after so much time has passed. This is because many businesses are torn about what the best course of action is: Continuing in-person as if nothing happened, moving towards a hybrid model, or going fully remote?
Going with the first option is Tesla. Elon Musk sent a letter to his employees in June of this year, stating that a full return-to-office will be put in place, and those who didn’t want to come to the office for 40 hours per week had to leave the company. This strict approach led to many being displeased with the company’s lack of flexibility, and also left them at a shortage for resources due to the lack of preparation.
Apple’s case was more flexible in comparison. As of September 5th 2022, Apple required their employees to come to the office for 3 days per week. This might seem like a small change from their previous 2-day policy, but they’ve alluded multiple times that this might be permanent if it succeeds. This means that one of the biggest companies in the world may be shifting to a fully hybrid workspace model.
On the other hand, there are many companies that are hiring fully remotely, such as AirBnB and Dell. The largely growing number in diverse return to office options, and the overall positive response to them, proves that remote work is (and should be) a permanent part of our lives now.
What do employees think about returning to the office?
Companies’ return to office plans have been extremely varied, and as a result, so have been the reactions from their employees. Here are some of the common points from employee responses, according to our research:
The joy of flexibility
After seeing that an alternative is possible, many people are starting to question whether working in-person is truly needed. The added cost (and lost time) for commuting, expenses on office tools, etc. all add up after a while. All of this can cause your return to office policy to seriously backfire if you offer no flexible solutions.
According to a very recent study, 50% of US workers said they’d rather quit than return to the office full-time. This is a very serious percentage, and it highlights that workplace flexibility is hugely becoming more and more important.
Employers should also keep in mind that, although it feels like a reasonable midway solution, even a hybrid setting is not satisfactory enough for some workers. For example, the leading machine learning expert at Apple reportedly quit his job due to Silicon Valley enforcing return-to-office rules, stating that more flexibility should be granted.
Working from home has another advantage that can’t be ignored: An increase in employee autonomy with remote working, and how much it has helped employees retake control of their lives as a whole during the complicated lockdown period. The ability to focus on your work tasks without the added stress of managerial problems is a huge plus for many people.
‘Othering’ and isolation at work
One of the biggest hardships of the office environment is having to deal with workplace harassment and discrimination. In fact, marginalized groups prefer remote work over other options, particularly because of this issue.
One of the leading causes of discrimination in the workplace is confirmation bias, where certain prejudices might affect how employers see (and treat) their employees. The flexibility of remote work policies leave less room for this, causing a more work-oriented and less discriminatory mindset at work. Research shows that remote working actually helped Black and Hispanic employees gain a higher sense of belonging in their workplace.
On the other side of it, there’s the potential problem of alienating all employees: Remote work isolation. Not working from home might be helpful to feel more connected to your coworkers, but creative solutions to this, such as coworking spaces have gained popularity alongside the increasing trend of remote work.
How can companies incentivize returning to offices?
Ask for your employees’ opinions on returning to the office
“Return to office anxiety” is a real thing, and there is simply no way to cure it without talking to your employees first.
A simple way to do this is to ask for their feedback about the remote work process to see what you can improve. Learn if they want to return to the office, and under what conditions. Each company’s business model is unique, and it’s up to you (plural) to decide what will work best for your team.
Introduce more flexible working models
We can all agree by now that the future of work doesn’t depend on location. If you still want to introduce a return policy, it should be more flexible, and offer more options for different working arrangements.
This step is especially important to promote better mental health in the workplace. Being more tolerant and understanding of different mental health conditions is important in creating a work environment that feels safe. All your employees deserve to feel listened to, and trying to accommodate their different needs is a big part of that.
This might seem like a given, but you shouldn’t provide different advantages for different groups of people. If a team in your company has the option for remote work and another doesn’t, this can create unintentional hostility and cause company-wide problems.
If, for example, you work from home but don’t allow your employees the same flexibility, this can also create a huge disconnect and cause resentment. Susan Vroman, a lecturer in management at Bentley University, Massachusetts, US says: “If you have a different rule for your employees and for yourself, you lose a lot of trust.” Instead, think of your company as a huge interconnected organism. This will help incentivize the return to office process more efficiently.
Remote work is here to stay…
…and it’s in companies’ best interest to get used to it. Which is why offering more flexible working models and allowing for remote work options is the most important part of a return to office plan that will actually work. If you act more empathetic towards your employees and help assist their needs, they will feel more understood and work more towards your company.
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