Being in the Room & Not on Zoom: Tactics to Reduce Resistance to Return-to-Office
“I have to tell my team to return to office – ugh.” My friend, an executive at a Fortune 100 company, said this with dread in his voice. He was trying to be a good leader and do what he was asked to do, but he obviously wasn’t bought in.
He’s not alone.
There’s a big push happening to get employees back to the office. According to the latest Microsoft Work Trend Index research, “there’s a strong desire among business decision makers to get people back into the office. Data shows that 82% of leaders say getting back to the office in person is a concern.” That’s a large number. As CNBC recently put it: “A whopping 90% of companies plan to implement return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, according to an August report from Resume Builder, which surveyed 1,000 company leaders. Nearly 30% say their company will threaten to fire employees who don’t comply with in-office requirements.” It feels like companies need to plan thoughtfully for the workforce’s return to office.
In fairness, not everyone is still working remotely, or ever was, during the pandemic. Medical staff, service professionals and many others thankfully continued to show up to work and be there where and when we needed.
According to Forbes, as of 2023 only 12.7% of employees work full-time from home with 28.2% working a hybrid model (some days at home and some days in the office). It seems the remaining full or mostly full-time work-from-home employees are generally white-collar office workers.
For companies seeking to bring more people back to the office, what’s the trick? As with any change, there is an evolutionary cycle people must experience when adapting to new ways of working and then adopting or sustaining those changes. One could argue that working in the office isn’t a new way of working, but there are many people walking around with the notion that “everyone” is still working from home. Clearly that’s not the case.
What’s in it for Me?
So, how to tempt people back to the office? Well, to start, help people understand the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). According to the Harvard Business Review, “when asked what would motivate them to come into the office, employees had a resounding answer: social time with coworkers.”
That might sound a little strange, but an astonishing 52% of Americans reported feeling lonely. So, organizations might think about supporting both organizational and employee needs by creating opportunities to socialize. Build communities of practice with in-person meetings to showcase speakers or presentations to develop new skills. A client I work with has taken unused office space and created an indoor pickleball court — a great way to get some physical exercise and social connectedness. Another organization I know of has announced the return of their well-loved buffalo chicken wraps. People used to line up out the cafeteria door on buffalo chicken wrap days and chat.
There are many ways to remind people of all the good parts about being in an office, you just need to look for them and promote them.
And there are many examples where working together in person or on-site clearly outweighs the benefits of working remotely. Remember that moment of innovation that occurs when you are in the same room together and can jump up and draw on a whiteboard to come up with a whole new idea together? How about being able to walk over to a coworker’s desk to ask a question and get an immediate answer, with a drawing and an explanation to help you effectively solve the problem? You can’t do that easily over chat. So many of our communications have been reduced to interpreting text in an email or a chat screen. Imagine having an actual face-to-face conversation and being able to hear tone of voice and read each other’s body language — the subtle nuances that really make or break communication and messaging — so that we understand each other quickly and correctly.
For new hires or junior employees, being in office is certainly preferable to working remotely. Networking is a critical component to success for any individual, but it is essential for people new to a company or industry. Networking remotely is very difficult. When you’re on site, it’s easy to bump into a colleague waiting for a noontime pick-me-up coffee and start chatting about an opportunity to introduce you to someone else or chat about a business problem. Trying to force a similar sense of connectedness via virtual coffees is nearly impossible. Natural opportunities to network pop up all the time in the office. New or junior people — the future of our workforce — will have an easier time assimilating, understanding their job responsibilities, finding mentors and coaches, identifying new opportunities and ultimately being successful by being on-site than remote.
Finally, from a career growth perspective, the unpolished truth is that the people in the room are seen and heard more easily. We’ve all been on the calls where you try to make your point and can’t break through all the chatter. You raise your hand on Teams and it gets ignored, or by the time you are called upon the moment has passed. From a career progression perspective, being on-site can only help your case.
Create a Strategy & Execute Your Plan
Mandating people to come back to the office full time will likely not go over well, and definitely not without a plan. Going from fully remote to fully in-person may be too big of a step, so consider a hybrid approach. But tempting people to come back to the office — creating greater benefits to coming in and being together than working at home and being isolated — can only help support the cause to get people back into the office. Most importantly, come up with your strategy to get people engaged again before you issue the back-to-office call.
Have tactics for a multitude of engagement channels ready. Here are a few ideas to include within your strategy:
- Gamify badge swipes or on-site logins into free coffees, free gym memberships, coveted parking spots or even extra PTO
- Create a video campaign from your senior leadership or peers within the organization welcoming employees back to the office and talking about the benefits of being in the office
- Break out the swag, line up speakers and get those events scheduled to help you get people excited and engaged again on-site
- Solicit employee quotes about what they missed most about the office when working from home, implement digital signage capturing people’s quotes (best entry wins a gift card)
- Create networking opportunities, especially for employees who started fully remote (The New Kids Club: Thursday Night Karaoke!)
Measure What’s Working
Once you’ve executed on your strategy, send out surveys to measure progress against your different engagement interventions to identify what’s working, and what’s not. Ask people what they missed by working remotely or what would make them more excited to be on-site and use this data to build those interventions into your strategy. Use ethnographic approaches to identify the different return to office personas and uncover unmet needs and concerns to help identify opportunities to better serve employees. Create a Return to Office Champion Network so people can talk live in small groups, or one-on-one, to understand what is working and what is needed to get employees more invested in returning to the office. The point is to use different tools to measure what is working and evolve your strategy as you learn along the way.
There’s no question that the U.S. workforce pivoted quickly when our organizations were forced to go remote. There are still people who will need to work remotely for different reasons, and you’ll need to have strategies in place to accommodate them. Clearly spelled out and published policies will help set expectations for everyone. For the remaining people who still work from home fulltime, it feels like it’s time to pivot again. We don’t need to go all the way back to fulltime on-site employment, but we do need to look for ways to entice employees back into the office — to remind employees of all the tangible and intangible benefits of being on-site — and to put a plan in place to get employees back into the office. This will foster growth and innovation, provide mentorship, and support a stronger, aligned workforce that can be more productive, connected and fulfilled through on-site work.
The Return of Partnership
If this all feels overwhelming and you’re still not sure where to start, find a qualified partner to help. You need strategy and execution to engage and empower your workforce, propelling you toward your goals. Create strategies to assist you to think differently about freeing your people up to focus on what they do best and execute on those strategies to give them the tools to succeed through coaching, upskilling, creating new mindsets — all steps on the journey to developing the workforce of the future. Don’t worry about doing it all yourself; partnering for solutions will increase successful return to work plans.
Got questions about the big return? Let’s talk.