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Are you getting your ‘return to the office’ strategy right?

Weston Morris, Sr. Director, Global Strategy and Portfolio Management, Digital Workplace Solutions, Unisys

Hybrid working has become the topic du jour as business leaders consider how they want staff to return to the office now and in the future. As they do this, a tug of war between employers and employees has emerged: Some 80% of businesses want their staff back in the office for at least three days; but only 20% of employees are prepared to do it.

Employees, having become accustomed to the flexibility of largely doing their jobs from home, want things to stay that way. And, to date, they’re winning the war. Currently, the average amount of time a UK employee is spending in the office each week is still just 1.6 days – significantly lower than the 3.8 days they were heading in before the pandemic.

Quite simply, the reason why employers are losing this battle is because they are getting their approach to the ‘return to the office’ movement wrong.

Mass return office mandates have not been successful.
To date, three quarters of employers have set a minimum number of days for staff to be in the office. Requirements vary from Goldman Sachs requiring its employees to be in the office for the full five days a week, through to the likes of Twitter, Disney and Tesla all asking staff to work from the office at least three days a week.

Unfortunately, mass mandates and high requirements haven’t gone down well, in some cases resulting in public backlash from staff. Take Amazon, for example, which has also asked staff to work from the office for three days a week. Over 30,000 workers from across the company recently signed a petition begging CEO Andy Jassy to cancel the directive. Clearly the company’s mandates have led to a decrease in employee morale, something which was likely made even worse after it was revealed that the company had started to track and penalise employees who work from home ‘too much’.

So, what should companies be doing to find a balance and end the war? Returning employees to the office is no mean feat, but HR can play a big role in advising business leaders on getting it right. From developing strategies, through to explaining them to staff, the whole process needs careful handling – and that’s exactly where HR thrives.

Here are some key considerations when advising on a return to office strategy:

Understand why you want everyone back in the office
This seems fundamental, but many companies haven’t actually sat down and evaluated why they want their employees back in the office, let alone outlined a business case for asking them to come back in either full-time or for, say, four days instead of two. How can you explain to employees why you need them back in for a certain number of days if you don’t know the answer to that yourself?

When it comes to what you’re asking of staff, there’s technically no right or wrong answer for the number of days they should be in. It will differ by business goals, staffing strategy, and industry. What matters is that it makes sense for your business. And that everyone – the business, employees, clients – benefits from employees being back in for the agreed number of days, even if it’s potentially more days than your employees would like. So, push your business leaders to sit down with you and make a strong case for why they want employees back in.

Once you can articulate this, you can start addressing the situation from a cultural, technological and office structure point of view.

There will always be different pros and cons to being in-office and to being remote
Depending on the industry, some leaders feel in-office working spurs more productivity, while others believe in-office working allows people to connect, create and ignite more innovation.

According to our own research, employees rank creativity highest in importance of elements for hybrid work (55%), while employers rank adaptability highest in importance for hybrid work (52%). To that end, rather than mandating that employees be in the office x days a week indefinitely, it may make sense to bring employees together in-person every day of the week for a short period of time to jointly work on a project where a high level of creativity or collaboration is needed. When that period of high collaboration/creativity ends, then allow for that team to resume a higher level of remote work.  That way, your return to the office does more than check-the-box – it serves a real purpose.

There will always be arguments for both sides of the coin, and you’re in the best position to address the disconnect. Encourage senior leadership to listen to employees and encourage them to be open to changing their ways of working, if that’s what will be most beneficial to the vast majority. Taking employee feedback onboard also means everyone will be more susceptible to whatever return to office strategy you choose to deploy.

Different workplace personas thrive in different ways
Not everyone will have the same preference when it comes to a remote working vs an in-office split. Even if you only mandate that employees need to be in the office one day a week, you’ll find that some people want to come in more often than that.

Everyone is different and some of your employees will thrive in an office environment while others will be more productive from home. It comes down to the tasks they need to complete and how much interaction they need with others to get their tasks done. For instance, are your designers or copywriters better off working quietly on a project at home, while your creative team thrives from having face-to-face ideation sessions in the office?

You need to decide your return to office strategy based on what really drives the best results, and data can help you get to the heart of that. As an example, Microsoft Teams meeting data can reveal whether the employees coming into an office are truly collaborating with each other, or if they are simply connecting with fellow employees in some other office. After all, if you are asking employees to come into the office simply to sit in the same meetings all day that they were attending from home, and not interacting face-to-face with anyone in the office, is that really improving collaboration and creativity?

Solving the “experience parity” issue.
For many companies, the solution will be to have a hybrid workforce, with a combination of employees working from home and in the office each day. While, before the pandemic, experience parity tended to affect those from home – who would be left unable to hear during team meetings or on client calls – the situation has changed, and those in the office need to be offered as great an experience as those working from home.

Many of us now have a home working set up in place. With our own keyboard, mouse, and even second screen. Employers need to make sure that when staff enter the office, they have the same convenience to do their jobs as they do with their set up from home. Are there enough power points in the office for everyone to plug their laptops in? Does the Wi-Fi bandwidth sufficient the increased video calls? Is IT support as easy to get from the office as it is now for people at home? The experience parity issue is a big one, and if staff feel they are better equipped to do their jobs from home than in the office, then it’ll be difficult to convince them to come in.

Employee experience programs are critical to any return to office strategy
Whatever your company decides it wants employees to do when it comes to returning to the office, an employee experience programme will be vital. For both existing and brand-new staff alike, you’ll need to run dedicated sessions on the new strategy, explaining the reasoning behind it.

You should also be prepared to show them any new processes which result from it. For example, is there now an in-office desk booking system? Are there new video conferencing solutions for calls with colleagues outside of the office? Is there a new process for letting teams know what days people plan to be in? An employee experience programme is critical in rolling out your return to office strategy, and for keeping tabs on how well it resonates with employees.  For it to be a success, don’t be afraid to take feedback on board and finesse it as you go.

Ultimately, your return-to-office strategy will be unique to your business and its needs. By and large, employers are losing the war to get their employees back to the office, or are not seeing the expected increase in collaboration and creativity. But this needn’t be the case with the right approach. It’s imperative HR Directors work with their business leaders to identify the business goals behind their return-to-work policy, ensure IT is providing the right digital workplace technology and services to support hybrid work, educate employees about the goals and options, and strike a balance which benefits all. The above considerations should go a long way to helping you have the right conversations and make employees happy, regardless of the strategy you choose. After all, you don’t want to hit the headlines for having your staff petitioning against your decision.

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