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Forcing Employees Back to the Office Won't Retain Talent — Here's What Will

Mar 28 2022

It’s still too soon to tell if we’ve reached the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But, if your leadership team hasn’t already started to address the how, when, and where of your employees’ imminent return to the office, now is the time. 

There’s a lot of moving pieces that converge when making a return to office plan. To ensure that employees feel supported by your organization and motivated in their roles, use an employee-centered approach and use flexible planning.

Let’s explore emerging trends surrounding employee productivity, how to keep talent retention front of mind while managing return to office plans, and ways leaders can accommodate employee expectations in 2022 with flexible hybrid work policies.

Understanding the Evolving Workplace

For over two years, pandemic restrictions have been constantly evolving — and along with them, so have office workplace policies. From making decisions about occupancy, social distancing, masking, and vaccination policies, to deciding when snacks, happy hours, and other amenities can come back, facilities planners and people operations teams have been busier than ever. 

But before solidifying return to office plans, it’s important to note that forcing employees back to full-time, in-person work could negatively impact retention and employee engagement. In fact, the latest workplace statistics from the Pew Research Center show that 60% of employees with remote-friendly jobs hope to continue working mostly from home after the pandemic is finally over. What’s more, that number is actually up from 2020 — it goes to show that over two years, employees have gotten used to the convenience of working from home. In fact many employees would rather resign from their jobs than return to the pre-pandemic in-office norms.

Do employees want to return to the office?

Employees want the flexibility to choose, and working norms are dictated by personal choice. Unpredictability is here to stay, and companies need tools in place to measure employee behavior, provide adequate spaces, and cater to varying employee needs.

Despite promises of increased flexibility from major companies, many managers and senior executives have lamented the loss of company culture and collaborative work opportunities as a result of remote work. And to a degree, they’re not wrong: according to the same Pew Research Center study, the #1 thing that remote employees do miss about the office is connecting with coworkers.

Work location flexibility is now a close second to compensation in job satisfaction priorities for many employees. Commuting has always been expensive and time-consuming, and many can’t imagine spending money on transit or gas, waking up hours earlier, and spending so much of their day on the road just to go do a job they’ve learned to do — and well! — from home. One recent poll demonstrated that 49% of millennials and Gen-Z would strongly consider resignation from current employment if forced to return to office. That’s where hybrid and flexible work comes in.

The Effects of Emerging Office Trends on Employee Productivity

Companies that work hard to create positive workplace experiences stand to not only retain existing employees but also maintain productivity. Additionally, 66% of organizations are concerned about how the return to office will impact the employee experience

When employees feel supported in their lives both at work and outside of it, they’re more likely to feel engaged and happy in their jobs, which leads to greater productivity. Keeping employee comforts and wellbeing in mind, including remote work preferences when establishing your return to office strategy, promotes employee engagement.

Employees who believe they have demonstrated their productivity when working from home find it difficult to side with company inclinations for a full return to the office. That’s why employees comfortable with their remote set-ups are pushing back on a full return to office. And discontented employees become less productive over time and often end up leaving to seek out greener pastures,amassing up to $550 billion per year in turnover rates and new employee hiring sprees. 

Managing back to office plans with employee retention

Work-life balance has become a focal point for employees used to working remotely. Amidst the return to work, hybrid strategies should be taken into consideration to boost retention rates and improve the overall satisfaction of employees. 

As mentioned above, workplace strategy and design are major contributors to employee job satisfaction, impacting job performance, employee retention rates, and turnover. Done incorrectly, management decisions regarding return to work guidelines for office workers can result in a loss of critical members of an organizations’ workforce. This includes any sort of scenario involving companies forcing employees back to work full-time.

How Leaders Can Accommodate Employee Expectations

If forcing employees back to work won’t lead to improved employee satisfaction and retention, what will? Here are six ways leaders can accommodate employee expectations in 2022 and beyond.

1. Build trust through a transparent workplace strategy

A great place to start building trust with employees is through transparency. Leaders who openly share missions and values with the organization are most able to create a work environment where employees lead by example. That can look like sharing presentations about the process of putting together a back-to-work plan, providing great resources for management and individual contributors alike to manage hybrid work, and creating contingency plans — and sharing them — so employees always know they’ll be taken care of no matter how the pandemic situation evolves. 

When upper management listens and responds to their workforce's wants and needs and creates policies to match, employees feel trusted and taken care of. 

Transparency includes being upfront with workers about your company’s return to office strategies. How much flexibility will be provided to employees in your hybrid work environment? Will days in the office be counted, and if so, will it be on a weekly or monthly basis? Provide them with as many details as possible.

One example of true workplace flexibility is Microsoft. They place workplace flexibility squarely in the hands of each individual employee, trusting them to know what’s best for their own situation. Every employee has different working styles, varying needs for social interaction, a range of family obligations, and flexibility or lack thereof when it comes to transit and car budgets — the list goes on. So long as there’s agreement between management and staff, employees establish their daily schedule, based on how and where it works best for their personal productivity.

2. Listen to employee feedback

Creating a workplace where open communication is promoted and encouraged increases employee trust.

Asking questions of your employees that demonstrate empathy and understanding grants employees space to discuss their ideal work environments, as well to identify potential areas for growth and improvement. It also provides further opportunities for employee contribution towards back to office plans.

3. Incorporate a digital workplace into your office design

66% of business decision-makers are actively working to redesign physical office spaces for hybrid work accommodations. With some employees choosing to work from home indefinitely, and others deciding they want to be in the office to get some social interaction, and others still thinking they’ll use the space twice a month, logistics like desk reservations and enforcing COVID safety protocols can be very complicated. 

Incorporating digital tools directly into the workplace, and creating a truly hybrid office design provides leaders with accurate occupancy data to make informed decisions. For example, if only one third of available conference rooms are being used, and many employees hope to continue working hybrid for the foreseeable future, it might be time to downsize the office to a smaller space — or at least seriously rethink layout and occupancy.

4. Continually assess the employee experience

Any updates and transitions to the office design should be planned and executed with the employee experience in mind. And once changes are implemented, it’s important to measure employee satisfaction and utilization of office spaces with these changes to see if the plan is working as imagined. 

Reviewing existing workflows helps to determine employee behavior, seek out areas for improvement, and influence a positive work environment. Cloud-based workplace technology and smart office equipment makes this feedback process much more streamlined and data-driven.

5. Invest in spatial intelligence

Leadership teams with a firm grasp on real-time usage and patterns of their physical office space are better equipped to prepare employees for their transformed digital workplace.

Spatial intelligence enables efficient management of building operations, as well as improved employee work environments. With IoT-connected technology and automated building systems, lights and temperature controls reduce energy use in unused spaces, and office neighborhoods where employees are mostly choosing to work from home can be consolidated or repurposed.

When leadership teams make their employees feel heard, companies are positioned for an enjoyable, productive, engaging, and even exciting return to the office. Ready to scale up your employee engagement initiatives? Review the Workplace Experience Roles to Hire For.

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