When it comes to designing a new workplace model, organizations should strike a balance between what candidates want and what’s best for the company.
By Tessa Lawrence
In today’s rapidly evolving and competitive labor market, companies are making significant investments in hiring and retaining employees. Unfortunately, even the most robust and well-planned retention initiatives are put at risk when organizations introduce widespread change—especially when it comes to executing return-to-the-office (RTO) plans. With many workers hesitant to return and more likely to leave if RTO plans aren’t carefully executed and communicated, employers should consider their employees’ wants and needs.
According to the Accenture Future of Work Study 2021, 83% of workers want hybrid or flexible work opportunities. In response, 63% of high-growth companies are offering “productivity from anywhere” workplace models. Another 85% of employees who have the benefit of flexible work options report they plan to remain with their companies for an extended period. Since today’s labor market is incredibly tight, it seems that workers are in a position to expect, and even negotiate, that flexibility.
While companies that commit to rigid in-office schedules risk losing top performers and narrowing already lean candidate pools, fully remote engagements can bring their own challenges related to company culture, employee engagement, and workplace relationships. When it comes to restructuring a workplace model, employers should strike a balance between what candidates want and what’s best for the company overall. It’s equally important that organizations keep clear communication top of mind when shaping messaging to employees around decisions or desired actions.
When companies consider returning to the office, it shouldn’t be an attempt to return to the status quo. Instead, leaders should consider it an opportunity to reevaluate what a well-functioning workplace looks like by unifying productivity with flexibility while emphasizing a healthy culture. An organization can achieve this by tapping into their company’s values and goals to underpin RTO execution and communication plans.
RTO goals can include both talent acquisition/retention objectives and performance initiatives. However, organizations shouldn’t tie flexible work opportunities directly to performance. Working from home shouldn’t be wielded as a form of reward or punishment. If employees aren’t performing, supervisors shouldn’t assume it’s because they’re working remotely.
Instead, organizations should carefully evaluate where employees are falling short and strategize how to fill any gaps through a multifaceted approach. A performance improvement plan could involve bringing employees into the office more often with strategic goals for doing so, including increased mentorship opportunities and in-person collaboration. Another goal for managers, directors, and executives to consider is becoming more agile in leading both in-person and remotely. Great leaders will learn how to hold people accountable and drive consistent performance, regardless of where employees are located.
Company goals and RTO objectives should be aligned, but strictly tying performance metrics to remote work opportunities could create imbalance in a company’s workforce by implying leaders don’t trust their people. While high-level performance goals can certainly be considered, they should be paired with initiatives such as employee engagement, company culture, and work-life balance to form a well-structured cornerstone of a company’s RTO goals.
When implementing an effective RTO plan, communication, empathy, and flexibility are key pillars. Organizations should launch their communication plan to employees well before their RTO date and be clear about expectations, protocols, and health and safety initiatives. Through that communication, employees should be made aware of how to address any issues and what resources and wellness programs are available to support the transition.
It’s also critical that leadership teams are on board with the established plan and that those leaders are unified in cascading communications and providing any needed support to their teams. Leveraging consistent messaging across the organization around timelines, expectations, and other important details will help minimize confusion, promote transparency, and build unity across a company’s workforce.
Employers that buffer their communication with understanding and empathy will also go a long way. Many employees are concerned about health and safety, childcare, and work-life balance, so emotions could run high if RTO plans are communicated abruptly, harshly, or in a tone-deaf manner. When organizations clarify their goals and purposes behind returning to the office, it will help employees navigate through the emotions and stress of uphauling their established remote work cadence.
After working remotely for an extended period, returning to the office will be a big adjustment for employees. Adding a commute into the workday will require employees to start the day earlier, and end the day later, potentially interfering with newly established circadian rhythms born from the pandemic. Learning new office protocols and even social norms is another challenge, so employers should consider asking their employees to work from the office just a couple of days a week—at least starting out. Organizations should also consider providing as much flexibility as possible by allowing employees to choose which days they prefer to come in. This will allow employees to ease into returning to the office, which will greatly help them adjust and feel supported.
Although companies should remain aware of the risk of employee attrition when executing an RTO plan, reopening the office provides an opportunity for leaders to reignite their company culture with core values. Feelings of reservation and fear about how employees might react are common among many leaders involved in planning RTO. However, there are many positives in returning to the office that companies should look forward to. While some employees are skeptical and genuinely prefer working from home, others are tired of working in isolation and are looking forward to being in person with colleagues. HR can foster these feelings of excitement by holding a day of celebration to commemorate the reunion and remind employees that they are valued.
While RTO plans are never executed flawlessly, companies that offer systems of support, understanding, and flexibility will have employees who are more receptive to the benefits of working from the office. That includes collaboration, culture building and opportunities for developing new and deeper relationships with leaders, colleagues, and customers.
Tessa Lawrence is director of HR for Aston Carter