In June, Tesla CEO Elon Musk demanded that all employees return to their onsite workspaces, according to a leaked e-mail thread. If workers refused, Musk would consider it a resignation. Ironically, when staff arrived at the company's Fremont, Calif. location, they were in for a surprise: There weren't enough desks or parking spots, and Wi-Fi was unstable. According to reporting by Fortune, the return was a disaster.
When Apple mandated work three days per week in the office, a group of workers published an open letter to the executive team revolting against the mandate.
"The pressure regarding work from home is understated. I believe companies are uncomfortable talking about it as they are facing significant pushbacks from the employees," said Gilles Raymond, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Letsmeet, booking software for offices that streamlines meeting scheduling. "I've spoken to more than 50 professionals. Whatever the level of the person—from C-level in a Fortune 50 company to young developers in the office—they are all facing, seeing or doing a passive pushback to not come back to the office."
But for many of those who have returned to the office, the experience has been positive. The latest Return to the Workplace report by Envoy, which surveyed 1,000 workers, revealed that almost all respondents (90 percent) said "being back is better than they expected." Even among those required to return, 91 percent feel the office experience is better than they thought it would be and 42 percent say it exceeded their expectations.
"I have confidence in the physical workplace for many reasons. One of the most compelling is that people crave it and will continue to gravitate to it if given the choice," said Annette Reavis, chief people officer at Envoy, a platform that helps employers manage hybrid work. "I don't think people should be coming back five days a week. It's not sustainable right now. Today, a hybrid model where teams are working three days a week in-office makes more sense."
[SHRM research on return to work: Employee Perception of Remote Work]
Make Employees Feel Welcome
Whether employees are required to return or voluntarily choose to do so, how they are greeted impacts the experience. Hint: Parking and desk shortages are not it.
Reavis offers these three strategies for creating a positive return to the office:
- Make sure your team understands the employee value proposition for returning to the office. People are returning to collaborate, socialize and deepen work relationships.
- Make their time in the office purposeful and productive.
- Create an environment that employees will want to return to. This includes building collaborative spaces.
For many workplace leaders, face-to-face communication can't be beat. "No one wants to hear this, but you'll have greater influence and more opportunity to be heard when working from the office," Reavis said.
Lexi Clarke, head of people for compensation software and data company Payscale, added, "It is easy to underestimate the impact of spontaneity, such as the ability to catch someone in between meetings or in the hallway and bounce an idea off them. You can easily forget how great those opportunities were, not just to build camaraderie but also to get some of the best ideas."
Most Payscale employees choose where they work and have the flexibility to work from home or in company offices.
"One thing we didn't expect is the willingness and openness of our leaders and our employees to share feedback about what's working, what's not, and what other companies are doing that we should explore," Clarke said.
Commuting Is a Bump in the Road
Yet that openness to returning may be thwarted by the physical journey to the workplace. Commuting challenges have created persistent roadblocks on the path to returning to the office. The average commute to and from work has increased to a new high of more than 27 minutes one way, a significant chunk of time to spend between work and home. Then when employees arrive at the office, there's a disconnect: 50 percent of their colleagues may still be working from home; the manager may not be there; and paradoxically, they will meet with many of their colleagues through virtual meetings.
"On the other hand, if she/he stays home, it saves one hour of subway or traffic, he/she can have lunch with the kids, can have a quick game with the dog, and receive the Amazon delivery," Raymond said. "What life sounds the best to you?"
In some locales, record-high gas prices have thwarted return-to-work policies. As prices soared past $5 a gallon, The New York Times reported that some workers couldn't afford the daily commute.
"The increase in commute costs came after the discussion about hybrid work began, after return to office plans were well underway," said Aruna Ravichandran, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Webex by Cisco, based in the San Francisco Bay area. "I believe this only amplifies the need for flexibility with your workforce: Give them the right tools to be successful when remote and trust that the work will be done no matter where they are."
The Future of Hybrid Work
"We are on the brink of a massive transition: Hybrid work is both different and harder than how we worked the past two years," Ravichandran said. "This means embracing different work styles and empowering employees to work where they're most productive."
For some, that's in the office, and for others, it's at home or somewhere between. If employees choose to go into the office, then employers should foster an environment where they can feel included and engaged.
"Giving employees equal access to career advancements, pay raises and advanced technology, whether they are at home or in the office, has been key to ensuring a fair and balanced workplace," she said.
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.