One of the hottest topics and biggest dilemmas for HR and corporate leaders today is how to proceed with return-to-the-office policies. Many business executives want their employees back in the office full time. Most employees who’ve had the opportunity to work remotely resist giving that up. Here’s a roadmap to make both groups happy.
The return-to-the-office issue has generated widespread media coverage, as well as angst among both managers and employees.
Despite the slowing economy, the labor market remains tight, leading some journalists to speculate as to who has the upper hand in shaping workplace structure.
But viewing back-to-the-office vs. remain-remote questions as a conflict is counterproductive. In high-performing organizations, strong productivity and a healthy workplace culture go hand in hand. Here’s a look at the current state of the return-to-the-office dilemma, the best path forward, and the vital role of team building in the process.
The Current State of the Return-to-the-Office Quandary
The basic outlines are clear, but where exactly are things at regarding the return-to-the-office question? Here are seven key findings and statistics from recent research.
Employers Want Workers Back in the Office…
Many businesses want employees to spend more time (if not full time) back in the office, but understand the hurdles. Per the Orlando Business Journal, nearly half of employers are planning to require more onsite work in 2023 than they did a year ago—even though many workers say such a move could spark them to look for a new job.
And even with economic turmoil and the job market softening, only 20% of employers believe they are gaining enough leverage to aid their push for more in-person work.
Consequently, 71% of employers are using a hybrid work schedule for at least some workers.
…But Workers Value Remote Work
Workers, on the other hand, are still resisting the return to the office, at least on a full time basis. Per Yahoo! Finance, a survey by Buffer found that 98% of remote workers would like to continue working remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.
The Business Journals reported that in a survey of knowledge workers, 82% said they had some kind of office mandate. About half said they went in primarily because of the mandate, not because they wanted to.
The same article noted that workers who have full schedule flexibility reported 29% higher productivity and 53% greater ability to focus than workers with no ability to shift their schedule.
47% of workers would consider looking for a new job if their employer reduced their remote or hybrid work flexibility, including 61% of Gen Z workers and 57% of Millennials.
Nine Practices Employers Should Embrace to Resolve the Return-to-the-Office Dilemma
Ultimately, employees working in the office, at least part of the time, benefits both organizations and their people. If leadership makes a compelling case for coming into the office while respecting employee desires for flexibility, everyone involved can win.
Here are nine actions business leaders can take to create both high performance and a happy, healthy workplace environment.
Focus on Engagement
According to research from Leapsome, as many as 40% of employees will be looking to move jobs within the next six months.
Why? Here’s a big reason: while 95% of HR leaders believe that employees are at least somewhat engaged at work, “when we asked employees, only 36% reported being engaged.”
As noted here previously, it’s not where your people work but how they work that matters. The key to maximizing productivity and effectiveness is improving employee engagement, and according to research from The Conference Board, “Work location—whether on-site, remote, or a hybrid blend of the two—has no impact on self-reported engagement levels.”
That’s backed up by the Leapsome report, which found, “Employee engagement, company culture, and ways of working are no longer just HR concerns…companies that prioritize employee engagement and development and truly value their employees will be the most resilient – best suited to outperform the competition.”
Make the Case for Returning to the Office
That said, again, there are benefits to both the business and employees to having workers in the office at least two to three days per week. But for employees who’ve been working primarily or fully remote, managers need to make the case for more in-office time.
In the words of Roy Charette, a leader in the fields of team building and professional development training, and managing partner at Best Corporate Events, “If employees are reluctant to come back to the office, my first question to management would be: do you even know why they should? If you understand a critical reason why they should physically be there, maybe you haven’t explained it well enough to your employees. And if you can’t think of a good reason, then perhaps they don’t need to be there as often or in the way that you’d like them to be back.
“If you want them back because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done things,’ that’s a really bad reason. If you want them back so you can supervise them in person, because you don’t trust them, that’s even worse.
“But if you want employees in the office to improve collaboration, accelerate decision making, and enhance company culture, those are all solid reasons.
“Another key reason is focus: when people dress up, leave home, and commute to an environment that is specifically for work, where there’s no TV or screaming kids, and everyone else in that physical environment is there to work—that, in many people’s minds, leads to more productivity and more achievement.”
Furthermore, per The Business Journals, majorities of both employers and employees agree that training new workers, team building, and professional development are all better when done in person.
As noted by Melissa Jezior, president and chief executive officer of Eagle Hill Consulting, “Workers know that some work is best accomplished in-person, especially work that requires collaboration.”
Roy uses the example of Best Corporate Events itself to illustrate the value of in-person collaboration. “The fact that our warehouse and office are right next to each other makes it easy for our people on both sides to get together and plan orders. They can grab a conference room and look at sales forecasts to determine how much to order and when.
“They can then walk into the warehouse and look at the space available. They can bring in someone from finance. It all happens in real time, with a level of physical visibility and immediacy you can’t get from a Zoom call.
“We work on projects that require us to make dozens of decisions a day. By being together in one space, we make those 40 decisions in real-time, and we don’t have to set up meetings.”
Give Employees Flexibility
In scanning the literature on return-to-the-office mandates, the word that appears more than any other is “flexibility”—followed closely by “hybrid.” The best approach, from both employer and worker perspectives, is a mix of in-person and remote work for positions that permit it.
And that number is by no means insignificant. Research from McKinsey found that 20 to 25 percent of workforces in advanced economies could work from home in the range of three to five days a week—which is four to five times more remote work than pre-COVID-19.
McKinsey notes however that “not all work that can be done remotely should be; for example, negotiations, brainstorming, and providing sensitive feedback are activities that may be less effective when done remotely.” Roy echoed this, adding “You have to look at the job responsibilities. What does this job entail? How much can be done virtually?”
The global consulting firm also predicts that in the workplace of the future, “a combination of physical location and organizational norms and ways of working make up the workplace… technological advances in recent decades may be influencing a shift that takes work to the people, for instance, in more flexible long-term remote or hybrid models.”
In the Leapsome research, flexibility and “work-life balance” are among the top four factors determining whether employees will stay at a company or look to move on. 48% of employees in their study said that having a flexible work environment was a top-three reason to stay, while 61% said that a lack of flexibility would lead them to search for another employer.
The Business Journals reported that “Workers don’t want to be forced to give up the work-life balance they have found with flexible work…Giving employees flexibility is key to success…rethinking traditional work schedules and having collaborative time in the workplace.
“Employees with hybrid work arrangements report the greatest satisfaction compared to full remote or fully on-premises workers…In other words, flexibility plays a critical role in job satisfaction.”
Finally, per Melissa Jezior of Eagle Hill Consulting, “Giving employees flexibility is the key to success—perhaps permitting remote work for individualized tasks, rethinking traditional work schedules, and having collaborative time in the workplace.”
Recognize One Size Does Not Fit All
While policies need to be uniform and to be seen as fair and equitable, it’s also important to recognize that the value of in-person versus remote work varies according to employee circumstances.
As reported in Business Insider:
“A tech worker’s post sparked a debate on who benefits or is inconvenienced by returning to the office. Some workers said the return to in-person work helped them feel less isolated. Other workers pointed out that it’s less ideal for workers with kids or long commutes.
“’This is the great divide between young singles and people married with kids,’ an Affirm employee wrote. ‘Being out and about is fun when you’re 24. Not that fun when you’re 37 with a 3rd grader finishing school at 3pm and having soccer at 5.’
“Much of the conversation around some companies’ return to office mandates has focused on the potential for increased collaboration and the benefits of in-person training.
“Some CEOs have also said that younger workers could improve their career with more in-person experience. Earlier this year, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg said that employees who joined in-person performed better on average than those that had joined remotely. Since then, the company has become one of several major tech companies to start requiring its workers to come into the office for at least a few days a week.”
Other research supports this, generally finding that working at the office is most popular with young employees who benefit from the in-person learning and mentoring, as well as older employees who’ve been working “at work” for most of their careers, and generally no longer have young children at home.
Remote work, on the other hand, is often preferred by young parents with busy caregiving schedules, as well as employees with mobility challenges.
Managers need to provide the individual flexibility to accommodate all types of employees, while maintaining policies that don’t favor or discriminate.
Cultivate Your Culture
Workplace culture is intangible but vital to both business success and employee happiness. It’s how everyone understands and internalizes workplace norms and expectations, as well as giving their work purpose.
According to CNBC, remote companies that hold regular celebrations (virtual or otherwise) are 85% more likely to report being far above average in building company culture.
“It’s important for companies to take a ‘first principles’ approach to these types of questions. In this case, pick apart the foundational elements of what makes up a work experience — camaraderie, mentorship, flexibility, celebration and more — and see how current practices serve (or fail to serve) these parts.”
Research from McKinsey backs that up, noting the value of workplace rituals, such as “mindful Mondays” (“a time for reflection across the team—a shared way of reflecting, both individually and communally, on how the week was going”); Friday team lunches to share who “did something cool” this week; “values day” when employees participated in community service projects; and marking transitions (promotions, accomplishments, welcoming new employees, or saying goodbye to departing team members).
“The right rituals can revitalize meaning at work—and help employees move beyond ‘me’ to ‘we’.
“You want to convey that there’s an expectation to be part of this group, and part of that expectation is your presence, because it’s what makes us us.” As Roy adds, “For a lot of people, the ‘us’ factor is extremely important. It’s what has made the organization successful, what has been proven to work.”
Contemplate Core Weeks
A growing number of companies including Smuckers and Making Science, are embracing the concept of “core weeks.” Per SHRM, in this model, employees are required to be in the office during specific weeks throughout the year, to enhance team building, skills development, and communication.
For example, at Smuckers, “During 22 specific weeks each year, employees are required to come into the office in Orrville, Ohio, but they can work at home the rest of the year. The food and beverage maker’s employees say this approach allows for both in-person collaboration and scheduling flexibility.”
Consider Re-Onboarding Employees
For companies that hired significantly during COVID and are still bringing people back into the office, McKinsey suggests “re-onboarding” everyone. “Acculturation requires interaction with other human beings. How we dress, how we show up—all those behavioral cues come from seeing other humans.”
In the Leapsome study, just 45% of employees rated the onboarding process they received as “good.”
Re-onboarding employees is a great way to strengthen relationships, improve communication, and increase employee engagement—especially when team building plays a role in employee orientation.
Offer Incentives to Return to the Office
Finally, to help bring employees into the office more frequently, consider offering an incentive such as a free lunch once or twice per week. In a study reported on by Food Management:
- “81% (of employees) wish their workplace offered more bonding activities during work hours. 68% of employees said they’d prefer socializing with coworkers during their workday, rather than off the clock.
- “The most desired time to socialize with coworkers was lunchtime, selected by 32% of respondents…a catered lunch during the workday gives employees an opportunity to bond and can be a way to earn their commute.
- “Overwhelmingly, free lunch and time to eat with coworkers was the activity employees wished their workplace offered the most during working hours (87%).”
As McKinsey adds, “Food is a great enabler. We all eat.”
Another incentive is free coffee days, with barista creations brought in from Starbucks, Caribou, your favorite local coffee shop, or (for those in Canada or the northeastern U.S.), Tim Horton’s.
Or, get charitable. Per The Business Journals, “Salesforce, which owns productivity tool Slack, said employees should be working in the office four days a week and is offering matching charitable donations for employees that return to the office.”
The Role of Team Building in the Return to the Office
Regardless of workplace structure or policies, team building delivers on four core pillars: improved communication, interpersonal relations, engagement, and fun.
The Business Journals reported on the experience of Atlassian, which takes a “work from anywhere” approach. Though it doesn’t require employees to come in to the office, “half (of all employees) come to the office at least once per month. Some opt to work in the office most of the time, because they happen to work better that way. Why? For connections and team-building…That could be anything from workplace parties and get-togethers, to wellness activities, or simply to see and meet colleagues.”
McKinsey adds that rituals, such as regular team building activities, “are similarly good for groups. They’re good for the broader organization. They’re very good for teams. And part of that is, ‘This is what we do together and for each other.’”
Under Microsoft’s return to office (RTO) policy, “employees can work from home up to 50% of the time without manager approval. Rather than require attendance for specific days, it’s up to employees and managers to decide when it makes sense for an in-person appearance for moments that matter.”
What matters? Dawn Klinghoffer, Microsoft’s VP of HR business insights, suggested employees “be in-person for onboarding, team-building, and the launch of new projects or initiatives.”
Roy Charette is seeing the importance of team building in the return-to-the-office movement first-hand. “We field calls every single week from people saying, ‘We haven’t been together in a long time. We want something fun. We want something engaging. We want networking. And we want an activity that will naturally mix long-time employees with our new people.’
“One program we have which is great for that purpose is Speed Networking. It brings people together for 15 minutes in table groups, getting to know each other, answering questions, doing a fun activity, laughing, then getting up, mixing up, splitting up, going to brand new table teams, and doing it all over.
“Another excellent activity is Trivia Blast Live. That’s where team building is wonderful because the employees aren’t thinking so much about socializing, they’re thinking about answering trivia questions, having conversations like, ‘Oh, you know that topic? I have no idea. I don’t know any of that music.’ Another team member says, ‘I know who that is, that’s Elvis Costello.’ ‘What? That’s fantastic! I never even heard of Elvis Costello.’ They’re interacting, answering trivia questions, getting excited about taking a group picture.
“The most emotionally impactful events however are our corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. We deliver more than 20 different charitable CSR activities, from our unique Build-a-Band™ program to benefit youth music programs and Mini-Golf Build and Food Donation for food banks to our Bike Build Donation® and Operation Military Care.
“Reaching out to the community adds a layer of purpose. We get people crying all the time at our programs. When the military shows up and there’s a vet in a wheelchair accepting the donation, that’s mind-blowing. That’s powerful stuff. When you’re not expecting it and all these kids come into the room to get bikes, the first bike they’ve ever had, people are crying all over the place. It’s super powerful.”
Few topics have garnered as much attention and coverage in the business press recently as return-to-the-office plans. Many corporations want employees back at the office after years of virtual presence. Many employees, having grown accustomed to working remotely and avoiding the commute, are resisting.
To achieve a win-win for both business performance and employee satisfaction, managers are figuring out the need to take steps such as making a compelling case for returning to the office; giving employees flexibility in where and when they work; re-onboarding employees hired during the pandemic; and even offering incentives for in-person work.
Team building can play a vital role in improving collaboration, supporting a strong workplace culture, and enhancing employee engagement. According to Yahoo! Finance, younger workers in particular “are more likely to prioritize work-life balance, flexible work arrangements, and purposeful work.” CSR team building programs support that sense of purpose and team cohesion, giving back to the community and creating an emotionally powerful shared experience.