Recent SHRM publications address the current RTO (return-to-office) trend, noting that an increasing number of organization leaders believe the remote-work paradigm triggered by the pandemic has run its course. It's now time to revert back to pre-pandemic in-office models.
For some employees, this is a boon; for others, it's very much a bane. The latter have become accustomed to the freedom, the enhanced work/life balance, and the saved commuting time and expenses brought on by remote work. Moreover, rightly or wrongly, these employees firmly believe they are contributing as much value, if not more, than they would if they continued working in the office.
Given this challenge, if you are a CEO or a CHRO and the RTO decision has been made, how best do you communicate the change? Here are a few observations and suggestions:
Realize that "left-brain" persuasion won't work. You can explain in detail all the rational reasons, cite the statistics you wish and convey all the evidence about the benefits of returning to the office. But if I've become accustomed to working from home and want to keep it that way, your reasons, statistics and evidence will bounce right off me.
You've got a better chance at persuading RTO resisters, or at least some of them, by creating a compelling "why"—a vision of the future and how everyone benefits from in-person work. Generate some excitement and positivity, and perhaps tell a story. As opposed to relying on dry statistics or data, articulate an exciting future that will benefit employees, customers, clients and other stakeholders.
Be accessible. Create multiple opportunities for employees to communicate with organization leaders about their feelings, concerns and anxieties. Actively listen. Your goal is not to win an argument or burnish your authority, it's to engage with your employees and give them a sense that they have been heard and are understood.
Confront resistance with firmness and compassion. On the firmness side, don't give grease to the squeakiest wheels. Once you do, your RTO change will be perceived as arbitrary, inconsistent and ultimately unfair. On the compassion side, when confronting resistant behavior, don't go into power or coercive mode. Continue to actively listen and treat the resistors with respect and dignity, even as you explain that you cannot deviate from company policy to make an exception in their case.
If employees need to be let go because of their continued opposition to RTO, don't use traditional disciplinary procedures. Instead, use a combination of the No-FEAR and Crossroads conversations and the Same Day Summary, as I describe in this column.
Generously give gratitude to employees who have complied, and acknowledge that for many of them, returning to the office is a sacrifice, which you appreciate and won't forget.
Share success stories in formal and informal communications. Whether in town hall meetings, newsletters, videos or simply informal conversations, share successes attributable to RTO. These can include employees finding that they feel more connected to the company's mission (and each other), new innovations that sprang from in-person exchanges, or other advances that have occurred since the RTO policy was implemented. Think of yourself as part cheerleader.
The bottom line: Regardless of your view about RTO's pluses and minuses, it's clear there's a major challenge in persuading employees to give up or substantially reduce remote work. This challenge calls for thoughtfulness, compassion, listening and proactive communication. In other words, make RTO a "right-brain" endeavor.
Returning to the Office:
A Sample CEO Letter to Employees
By now, you have received our RTO (return-to-office) policy.
For those of you who have welcomed and supported this change, you have my heartfelt thanks.
I also understand that for many of you, this is unwelcome news. You've grown accustomed to working primarily from home and have found it a better alternative to getting in your car, driving to work and spending the day at the office.
I won't attempt to persuade you with the various reasons, factors, data, etc. that prompted us to make this change and return closely to where we were pre-pandemic. What I can say is that we have given very close attention and scrutiny to all factors, including the challenge this change will undoubtedly create for some of our colleagues, and yet we feel this change is essential for our company to survive, grow and thrive.
For those of you who are dismayed by this change, I ask you to give us a chance. Make the adjustment. Join us in the office. Connect in person with your colleagues, and hopefully experience the personal and professional benefits we all gain when we are physically present with each other.
Change is seldom easy. For those of you who agree with this change and for those of you who don't but are willing to give it a try, you have my profound gratitude.
I am available to anyone who wishes to discuss this change and wants to know more about why the decision was made and why we think it will put our company on a path to an exciting future.
Jathan Janove is a SHRM columnist, a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year;" author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins 2017); Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching; and a faculty member of the University of California San Diego HR Master Series.