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How Employers Are Bringing Remote Employees Back to the Office

Rear view of casual businesswoman raising her hand to ask the question on education event in a board room.

As employers are switching to hybrid work models that blend remote and onsite work, balancing employees’ preferences to work from home with organizational needs and goals, they’re meeting some resistance from workers who’d rather stay remote.

To smooth the transition from remote to in-office work, company leaders should provide a reason for the change, give employees a say in how the change occurs, create connections between workers and help them solve logistical problems, workplace experts say.

“Organizations of all sizes are focused on bringing their people together on a regular basis to ensure they are kept updated on their goals and strategy and that colleagues are collaborating effectively together,” said Mark Dixon, CEO of the International Workplace Group, a global flexible workspace provider.

While many organizations agree on the value of bringing employees back together face to face, they are using different tactics to accomplish that goal. The key is to find the tactic that works best for each individual employer.

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” Dixon said. “The amount of in-person collaboration needed differs based on industry and role. Certain industries require a relatively higher level of face-to-face teamwork and relationship building while other verticals may require less in-person work.”

Provide a Reason for Return-to-Work Requirements

In a 2023 survey compiled by BetterUp Labs, employees who were required to return to the office cited significantly more resentment than those who returned to work because of strong pressure, rather than a mandate.

But even if they are required to return, employees will respond more positively if they are given a reasonable explanation, workplace leaders said.

[SHRM resource page: Return to Office]

“Mandates have to make sense from a business perspective and meet business objectives. There has to be a better reason than ‘because I said so,’ ” said Geri Johnson, COO of Next PR, a public relations agency headquartered in Colorado.

Here’s an example: Charlotte Morgan is the chief legal and administrative officer at Adore Me, a global online retailer headquartered in New York City with six brick-and-mortar stores. She oversees the company’s people function and is the architect of their hybrid policy.

“Adore Me is a collaborative, fast-moving environment, where remote work can’t replace face-to-face [interactions],” Morgan said.

When Morgan announced the company’s plan to bring employees back into the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the people team initially heard some grumbling about the mandate.

“It was important to give employees an explanation for why in-office is better and why on those particular days,” Morgan said. “When we explained why it was especially important for young people who benefit from face-to-face mentoring and for women who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the reasons resonated with them.”

Another example: Although Next PR has very few onsite requirements, they have found that their summer interns benefit from spending some time in the office. “We want our interns to be in the office two days a week so they can meet other people. But there is some flexibility about what days they come into the office,” Johnson said. “We also tell the people that supervise them to be in the office on the same days that the interns are there.”

Give Employees a Say

Consider getting employee buy-in before making the switch to hybrid work. Before they moved to a hybrid business model in the summer of 2022, the RTO team at Thrivent talked to their employees about the best way to get work done in an organization that has a mix of remote, mobile and onsite employees.

That led to a formal classification system that clearly defined the three categories along with a “Ways of Working” toolkit that discusses the best ways to maintain and strengthen collaboration when team members fall into all three classifications.

“We don’t have a mandate but there are expectations,” said Kelly Baker, CHRO for the nonprofit financial services organization headquartered in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “We think it’s important to be intentional about when employees get together.”

Much of the face-to-face interaction occurs at the team level. Baker has found that when her team is doing strategic planning, they work better when they are all together.

Johnson believes that giving employees agency and choice is more effective than a mandate. “Ask your people what they want and be prepared to respond to what they want to do,” she said.

If employers choose to hand down mandates, Gabriella Kellerman, chief innovation officer and co-founder of BetterUp, a human transformation platform headquartered in Austin, Texas, encourages senior leaders to have a conversation with employees that offers them choice and agency. “Look for areas of agreement between employees and leaders,” she said. “Ask your employees, ‘What can we all agree on?’ ”

Create Connections

To sweeten the deal, make sure employees benefit from close connections with their colleagues. At the beginning of each year, Johnson and the CEO of Next PR sit down with each employee and ask them “What excites you about your work every day?”

“Over 80 percent, without fail, say ‘It’s the people.’ The people are the reason they come into the office,” Johnson said.

She shares that sentiment. So when she goes into the office, she clears her calendar so she can be present to engage and connect.

At HiBob, “we partner with employees to find the right balance between hybrid and remote work. We want them to use the time in the office to foster connections,” said Keren Kozar, senior people and culture partner at the HR tech company headquartered in New York City.

That includes making time for employees to get to know each other better on a more personal level. On Wednesdays, when all employees are in the office, HiBob provides a catered lunch so that everyone can eat together and, if they want, talk about things other than work.

“These organic moments of connections lead to greater trust which, in turn, leads to better collaboration and engagement,” Kozar said.

Leaf Home, a home services and product provider company in Hudson, Ohio, uses data to create a framework for their hybrid business model.

“The core of our framework is to identify what people want given the nature and goals of the business,” said CHRO Sean Loboda. “We found that employees want the office experience to be different than working from home.” Leaf Home created guidelines for how employees should spend their time when they are in the office. “We make it clear that office time is for collaboration,” Loboda said. “We don’t want people coming into the office and then spending the day in Zoom meetings.”

Solve Common Problems

Seventy-seven percent of respondents in the BetterUp survey identified the “time and expense of the commute” as the biggest challenge, followed by “loss of autonomy” as another significant challenge.

Employers that solve these problems can smooth the transition to hybrid work.

Leaf Home’s internal research shows that more than 80 percent of their employees live within 20-25 miles of headquarters, making for a relatively short commute. The company also has over 200 field offices at which employees can work.

“For a large proportion of companies, onsite time doesn’t necessarily mean working from a city center HQ, and instead they are empowering their people to work in a hub-and-spoke model,” Dixon said.

Amber Pandya, director of employee experience at G2, a global software company headquartered in Chicago, made a business case to convince senior leaders to allow her to set up a small satellite office in New York City. “It was an opportunity for me to make connections and get feedback from employees in other groups,” Pandya said.

A number of organizations have also begun to provide commuter benefits. These benefits can include reimbursement or discounts for mass transit, employer-paid parking, rideshare or vanpooling costs, and maintenance or repairs on personal vehicles.

Parenting challenges can also hold workers back from returning to the office.

When Kozar first interviewed for an HR partner position with HiBob, she was specifically looking for a hybrid model with one to two days in the office because she had a toddler at home. During the interview, she had an open discussion with her now-employer to determine whether the job and hybrid work would be a good fit for her.

Her personal experience has shaped the way that she approaches her role. Kozar, who is pregnant with her second child, is open with employees about the challenges of balancing parenting responsibilities with work responsibilities—and has found that this openness encourages employees to be honest with her about their own challenges.

She sees the role of HR as creating a welcoming environment and being someone who employees want to talk to.

“Be a person first. Share what it means to be in the office,” Kozar said. “It helps you get authentic feedback.”


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