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Employers Choose Carrots over Sticks as Employees Return Onsite

Companies tread carefully as they transition employees back to worksites


A businesswoman is standing next to a carrot hanging from a branch.

When Boston law firm Lando & Anastasi decided to require employees to return to work one or two days a week starting Sept. 1, the emerging COVID-19 delta variant was not a major concern. As new infections began rising once again, the firm nevertheless stuck to its plans for a partial return to the office.

"We plan to use this approach through the end of the year and then reassess things," said Peter Lando, one of the firm's partners. "We might ask people to spend additional days in the office once we see how it is going."

The firm did not simply issue a return-to-the-office requirement. It also put in place two benefits designed to help ease employees' concerns about returning to onsite work:

  • Lando & Anastasi is providing a parking stipend so that employees can drive to work if they choose, recognizing that many of its 70 employees were not enthusiastic about using public transit to commute to downtown Boston.
  • The firm is having lunch delivered to whoever is working in the office on a given day so that employees will not have to go out if they don't want to. Employees simply have to let the firm know in advance when they will be in the office.

The office itself has been set up for social distancing and private workspaces since the firm made working in the office voluntary in July 2020.

Walking the Tightrope

There is good reason why employers are treading carefully as they attempt to transition more employees back onsite. The labor market is in flux with an unprecedented number of workers willing to change jobs if they are uncomfortable with their work arrangements.

Push too hard on a return to onsite work and employers may be in for an unpleasant surprise, according to the monthly Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, run jointly by the University of Chicago, ITAM and Stanford University. The June survey covering nearly 50,000 working-age Americans found that:

  • 36 percent would comply but start looking for a job that allows some working from home.
  • 6 percent would quit rather than return to full-time in-person work.
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Steps to Take

Employers that want to bring remote workers back into the workplace will have to do so while paying attention to employee concerns. Here are some ways to do that.

Prepare them in advance.

Employers that want to transition from remote to in-person work need to prepare the ground first. Lando & Anastasi has been doing this throughout the pandemic via 20-minute companywide conference calls every Friday, which lately have focused on policies for the required return to the office, such as:

  • How many people can be in specific spaces at the same time.
  • The availability of flexible office space for people who do not have an assigned office.
  • Any training employees may need before or when they return to the office.

To make the most of employees' in-office days, the firm is asking teams to coordinate as much as possible so that all or most team members are in the office on the same days.

Provide an array of support.

Employee needs for a return to the office are often as diverse as the workforce itself. "I would compare reopening an office to planning dinner at a wedding," said Maddie Drake, operations associate with Ovia Health, a technology firm with 93 employees based in Boston. "Just set out a buffet and let people pick what they want and determine for themselves what and how much they want to put on their plates."

Drake advocates for a wide range of options. For example, employees who are concerned about using mass transit but have no choice may value a flexible work schedule the most because it allows them to avoid commuting during peak rush hour. Other employees may be more willing to work onsite if they have a child care subsidy that makes in-home child care more affordable in the event they do not want to take their children to a day care center.

Consider incentives.

In a tight labor market, employers also can turn to cash incentives to increase employee willingness to work in the office. This can include spot bonuses for each day spent in the office or a higher rate of pay for onsite work.

These incentives, however, may need to evolve in response to employee needs and the nature of the pandemic in a given location. "Moving back into the office is not like turning on a light switch," said Theresa McEndree, global head of marketing and corporate brand at Blackhawk Network in Pleasanton, Calif.

Incentives may also make a difference when directed at employees who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. McEndree noted that her firm's research shows that "62 percent of employees want at least 80 percent of their colleagues to be vaccinated before they are willing to come back into the office."

Incentives of $100 to $500, depending on income, can help overcome vaccine hesitancy among employees, she said.

Look for the Bright Side

While some employers may lament the continuation of full or partial remote work with no end in sight, there is potential good news about the impact of remote work. A May 2021 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, drawing on several independently conducted surveys, estimates that working from home has increased productivity by 4.6 percent, with half of those gains attributable to the time employees save by not commuting to a worksite.

Employers that can find the sweet spot of maintaining these remote-work productivity gains and adding another layer in the form of regular, if reduced, in-person work and collaboration could reap gains for years to come.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

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