How to get back to the office

Remember that other life where we had no choice but to go into the office each workday? Those days are gone. With restrictions easing, many employers are wondering how to encourage people back to the office.

Stephen Lynch

The pandemic did not invent remote work. It was an existing trend driven by improving technology, and the search for talent and lower costs. The growth of distributed teams and freelancing platforms like Fiverr and Upwork are testaments to this.

But the pandemic has sped up the trend. John Macomber, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, believes the pandemic has brought remote work forward by 20 years.

At the height of restrictions, whole offices were empty. Workers attended meetings from their couches and were typing from their laps. Kids, dogs, and filters provided comic relief.

Back to the office

But with cases falling and vaccination rates rising, employees are looking to bring staff back to the office. A recent survey by Deloitte found one quarter of companies have already returned to the office while 64% planned to return in 2021.

This is not the end of working from home though with two-thirds of employers adopting a hybrid in-office and remote model.

Employers are keen for a return to the office for many reasons. Some are worried that workers are less productive at home. Mostly, workers have become too productive with many not knowing when to turn off their laptops. Burnout has been a problem.

Other employers cite the lack of creativity from remote work.

‘What we are really missing is that creativity, and that spontaneity and the ingenuity and talking to your teammates face to face,’ says Sean Bisceglia, CEO of Curion.

Similarly, team cohesion and company culture are concerns.

Please don’t send me back

Employers may be in for a rude shock. Many employees are reluctant to return to the office. A recent PwC survey in the US found over half want to work from home (WFH) at least three days a week, with 29% saying they want to WFH five days a week.

The survey also found employees expect a much more gradual return to the office compared to their bosses.

A survey by the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management found 63% of employees now believe the office is unnecessary.

Reasons behind this reluctance by employees include:

  • fear of contracting Covid-19
  • commute times
  • a loss of convenience, and
  • social anxiety and even trauma from the impact of the pandemic.

Encouraging employees back

Covid-19 is still not under control and new variants threaten. So limiting the spread at work is the key area that employers must address. Potential measures here include:

  • Increased spacing between employees in offices.
  • Encouraging employees to get vaccinated (mandatory vaccination is not possible in some countries).
  • Testing, temperature checks, contact tracing, and strict quarantine policies.
  • Encouraged mask wearing.
  • Hybrid models where employees split time between the office and home. The PwC survey found that 92% of employees want a hybrid model. A hybrid model also helps with promoting social distancing in the office. Microsoft began a hybrid model in October where employees can WFH half of the time. Ford Motors announced that employees already working remotely can continue to WFH – only required to come to the office for some face-to-face meetings. Citigroup and Google have also announced hybrid models.
  • Employers can also provide support and training for returning employees. This includes support and training to smooth the transition back to the office. But should also include general support and training that is best done in person.
  • Managers should also take advantage of a return to the office by engaging with employees and eliciting their ideas. Companies should encourage flat hierarchies and team brainstorming sessions. Standing over desks and ‘doing the rounds’ are no longer the answer.
  • Employers can even get creative with Silicon-Valley-style perks like free coffee, food and social events.

Governments could also help, although legislation should be a last resort.

Final thoughts

The move to remote work has not been a disaster – it has actually provided a template for the future of work. But the office is not dead and many positives remain. A hybrid model not only makes sense but is popular among most employees. There is no magic formula, but genuine concern and a willingness to experiment can only help.