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How to Create a Return-to-Office Strategy

Companies opt for hybrid approach, combining remote work and in-person meetings

A woman is looking at a computer screen with a group of people on it.

While more than half of all full- and part-time U.S. employees worked completely remotely in April and May, that number recently dropped to 33 percent, according to an Oct. 13 Gallup poll. One-quarter of employees surveyed said they work remotely sometimes, with 41 percent reporting they never work from home. Another study of C-level employers by West Monroe found that 55 percent said their workforce is "mostly remote to avoid social distancing issues."

It's clear: As the country has settled into pandemic life, many companies are bringing employees back to the office, but the process is a slow one. Employees have mixed feelings about the transition, according to researchers. This week, workplace technology company Envoy released its latest Protecting the Workplace report, revealing nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of U.S. employees "fear a return to the workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety." The same study found that 94 percent said they'd like to go back into the office at least part of the time.

With so much up in the air, it can be challenging to decide whether to bring employees back or, if remote or hybrid work schedules are reaping benefits, leave things as they are, possibly offering people a mix of whatever works for them.

Asking the Right Questions

So far, it seems like the larger the company, the further out they are pushing their return-to-work dates. For example, a host of enterprise companies announced workers would come back to their offices in the summer of 2021. Google, American Express and Ford Motor Co. fall into that camp. Microsoft also pushed off its return to the office until next summer and announced that it was making its work-from-home policy permanent starting Oct. 9. Any employee can work from home without approval as long as it's less than 50 percent of the time.

But other companies are ready to move back onsite now. So what goes into a return-to-office strategy?

Laurie Lovett is chief human resources officer for Nielsen Corp., the media research and ratings company. Lovett said her company is making its decisions with a "people first, safety first" mindset. The company pivoted its 45,000 global employees—9,500 work in the U.S.—to an at-home model early in the pandemic. The transition wasn't too difficult since most employees were already taking advantage of Google Meet and Slack to communicate with each other, Lovett said. Since going remote, the flexibility of working from home has brought about "quite a bit of innovation, productivity and the ability to prioritize work/life balance," she said.

"We had cross-functional teams working together across the world. Many times, when we were in offices together, maybe one person may have been calling in and everyone else was [in the office]. Now, you have everyone calling in, and it allows the collaboration and discussion to be very inclusive and collaborative and we've seen the benefits of that in our discussions and projects in the cross-functional teams. [A] videoconferencing environment really brings all voices to the table in an innovative way," Lovett explained. As a result, when the company does head back to its offices, the space will be used very differently.

"When it's safe to return to the office, we will think about the offices in a different way," she said. "There will be spaces for collaborative work experiences. People will use the office for small teams and quiet time."  

Kate Lister, president of research firm Global Workplace Analytics, said this is probably how most companies will go back. "People love to make this conversation polarized, but in reality employees want a mix of both. The mix of remote and in-office is really what works. We're finally realizing that what's good for people is good for business."

Clint Wallace, senior vice president of human resources at pharmaceutical company Sanofi North America, can attest to this firsthand. Before the pandemic, he would make the cross-Atlantic flight to his company's headquarters in Paris at least every six weeks—often for a one-day meeting that would eat up most of his week with travel and waiting around. Sanofi's return to office won't require that type of travel anymore, something that will help him and the rest of the company's employees, Wallace said. Returning to the workplace must be "reimagined."

"We've put out principles that say we would like for people to work from anywhere. And we would like for people to leverage this on a voluntary basis so it gives people the autonomy of what works for them," Wallace said. His company has started sending some of its more than 104,000 people back in some locations, but the 12,500 U.S.-based employees are remaining at home for now. He's working on protecting the company culture by doing frequent check-ins with employees and asking them at the beginning of every meeting how they are doing as part of Sanofi's "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" mental health program.

Even companies that saw most of their workers remain in the office are being cautious about rushing everyone back too soon. Morristown, N.J.-based Atlantic Health has about 17,000 workers, with approximately 3,000 working in office-based positions. At the height of the pandemic, many of the 3,000 were working from alternate locations. Today, the company is still using a hybrid approach to bring employees back to the office, said Nikki Sumpter, SHRM-SCP, chief human resources officer. She said it will be important for every company to realize that there's no going back to pre-COVID-19 times.

"People need to go forward and ask, 'What does the future of work look like?' " she said. "For many organizations, that's going to mean pivoting workforces so that they can get the best of both worlds and adapt to the new experiences that are possible using digital platforms. To continue to be great employers, we need to embrace what we have and what we have learned from this crisis."

Lister from Global Workplace Analytics said the research to support this notion has been there for more than 15 years. "Every study, every client—we've never seen an instance when productivity goes down when working remotely," she said.

Karen Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.


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