Like most companies that had an in-office presence before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, you might be debating how and whether to bring employees back to the office. How you return to work could affect your company's long-term plans, so it's critical to get it right.
While companies like Airbnb have adjusted to a fully remote operating model, others are exploring a hybrid return with employees working part of the week in-office and part of the week at home. On the other hand, some companies, with direction from the C-suite, are insisting that all employees return to the office.
How you make these decisions and communicate and implement them can have a big impact on employee productivity, mental health, and retention. Before you make any plans, taking your employee's temperature on the issue is the first priority since drawing a line in the sand by demanding employees return on a certain date could backfire. One company tried this, and only half of its employees showed up. Seemingly friendlier return to work demands rolled out without a thoughtful approach may not go over well either.
The consequences of a poor plan
In a well-intentioned attempt at humor, a Canadian property management company welcomed workers back to their buildings with a series of banner ads , displaying messages like, "Miss your sweatpants yet?" and a banner with a picture of a cute dog that said, "Bet your dog's missing you." The jokes were lost on their employees who reacted by sharing their thoughts on the ads across social media. The company promptly removed their office ads and issued an apology, but the damage had already been done.
Remember that some crave the social aspect of in-office work and want to return, but many others do not. It can be a tough choice for many workers, and some may feel they have no choice but to return to the office or lose their job. This is perhaps not the time to experiment with playful messaging.
Make returning to the office positive
Companies with workers returning to their offices have a chance to focus on the best parts of in-office work: a sense of community, a feeling of belonging, and in-person recognition to see value of their work.
While each company's culture differs, this probably isn't the time to start injecting "fun" into the workplace with games or chili cook-offs, for example. While events and parties are a great way to lift morale, remember that your employees are going through a lot of change at once. A good idea like a happy hour can feel like another thing to think about, adjust to, and plan for after more than two years of being at home. Even those who want to return to the office could experience some growing pains while getting back into a daily office routine.
Find authentic ways to communicate that you care about your employees. After all, the company can't run without them. Here are some ideas that may help ease the return:
- Provide coaching for managers: Make sure they understand how to respect and deal with people's feelings. Focus on listening skills and trust-building. Ensure managers and leaders are walking the talk by:
- Taking lunch breaks
- Modeling work/life balance
- Keeping regular hours
- Taking their allotted paid time off and encouraging employees do the same
- Promote your employee assistance plan (EAP): If your company doesn't already have this resource, launch an EAP and share regularly how to use the plan. Choose one that is available 24/7 so someone can contact a live person if they are in crisis.
- Focus on work-life balance: Consider closing early on Fridays for a while or giving employees the day off. Or, consider giving everyone an additional day of paid time off each month. Create ways to ease people back into the daily office grind by giving them a break when and how you can.
- Bring relaxation into the workplace: Think about offering workplace massages, Reiki therapy, or meditation spaces. Other ways to make employees more comfortable are relaxing the dress code or leaning into ergonomics to ensure everyone has the supplies and tools they need to work comfortably and productively.
- Improve the office space - Now is a great time to decorate, improve common areas, and add special touches. Find ways to make the office environment warmer and more welcoming, whether with upgraded coffee machines and free snacks, or new carpet and softer lighting.
Leadership communication is also key during this time. Executives and managers need to communicate verbally, in writing, and through in-person gestures how much they appreciate their employees and understand that this is a difficult transition. Consider your return to the office like an "employee appreciation week" on steroids.
Ask employees what they want
If none of the above suggestions seem to fit your company culture and you're still stumped on how to transition back to in-office work, you can always just ask your employees what they want and need.
Send an anonymous employee satisfaction survey and ask for feedback on how to improve their in-office experience. Use that feedback to make changes and share your plans companywide. A survey can help you in more ways than one: It shows you are interested in what your employees think and feel, which can help them feel valued, and you can gather real-time feedback that can help you avoid going down the wrong path.