Since April, global real estate data company CoStar has randomly awarded $10,000 each day to a vaccinated employee who returned to a physical office. Additionally, CoStar is awarding vacations to Barbados and flights via the company's private plane to three employees, and one grand-prize winner will receive a new Tesla.
Chief Executive Officer Andrew Florance announces the daily winners each morning with an all-staff e-mail. He said the daily drawings could last into summer, and while this is a lot of money to invest in encouraging vaccinations and a return to the office, "in the context of a multibillion-dollar company with thousands of staff and hundreds of offices, it's a drop in the bucket," he said.
Welcoming employees back to a physical workplace could enable more-effective onboarding and training, facilitate valuable person-to-person and team collaboration, heighten productivity, make it easier for colleagues to build rapport, and immerse newer employees in the company's culture.
However, recent research shows that getting employees to return to the office will be an uphill battle. Nearly two-thirds of employees would choose a permanent work-from-home situation over a $30,000 raise—one that is contingent upon them returning to the office full time—according to a survey of 3,000 employees from 45 companies. Only two companies participating in the survey, which was conducted by anonymous professional network Blind, saw more employees opt for the $30,000: JPMorgan Chase (53 percent) and Qualcomm (58 percent).
As the United States' economy recovers and employers hire more workers, HR departments must weigh which benefits would attract the best candidates while also keeping their current employees happy.
Supervisors have to address work/life balance needs among their team members. And those workers must weigh the value of in-office collaboration and social engagement against hours saved not commuting and the comforts of logging in at home.
Correcting an Aberration
Many in the C-suite have spent the past year or so praising their teams for maintaining productivity throughout this unprecedented period.
Using an array of metrics for 7,000 workers, such as use of e-mail and other cloud-based tools, productivity software company Prodoscore found employees were overall more productive and worked longer hours in 2020 than in 2019, according to a study issued in March and reported in The Wall Street Journal.
Heightened productivity doesn't necessarily make CEOs fans of working from home. During a recent Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon commented that remote work doesn't work well "for those who want to hustle." And Goldman Sachs' David Solomon described working from home as "an aberration that we're going to correct as soon as possible."
Remote, but Not 'Remote-Only'
For others, the office was never truly closed. Gibson Smith is chief people officer at Avionos, a Chicago-based digital commerce and marketing company that serves S&P 500 companies. It has 102 employees—60 of whom are in Chicago.
"When talking about the past year, many people think about this time as a shift to remote work," Smith said. "We like to think of it as a pause on every employee working fully in person at the same location. During the past year, we never lost sight of the idea that one day we would all be together again, and we also never fully shut down our office space in Chicago.
"We gave employees a safe space to work if they needed it and ensured them that we were remaining compliant with CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and other local and state regulations to make the safety and health of our employees a top priority."
As the world reopens, Smith said, these policies continue at Avionos, named one of the Best Places to Work in Chicago the past three years.
"We're not mandating anyone come into the office at this time unless they want to," Smith said. "We're seeing an organic return of our employees." Approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of its employees have come into the office at least one day, Smith estimated.
"They want to collaborate with colleagues and managers, and, for many of our employees, they've reached their ceiling of isolation and are ready to be reacclimated in the working world," he said. "We continue to remain optimistic that we'll all soon be back in the office together."
The Wall Street Journal reported that one Atlanta-based software firm's CEO said he wants his company to be known as a "remote-first" company, not a "remote-only" company.
Relocating Employees Don't Always Tell Their Employers
Dave Hilborn is managing director of operations excellence for West Monroe, a business operations consultancy group based in Chicago. He said a West Monroe survey in the second quarter of 2021 showed that 70 percent of its clients are planning to open in the summer, a bit sooner than they'd originally planned to in September.
"Employees [nonetheless] are saying that they really value the work-from-home option, and a huge percentage want this to continue post-pandemic, or want a hybrid model," Hilborn said.
"Since March, the talent market has been heating up. Companies are finding that by allowing remote work, they have a much wider selection of talent to choose from, because potential candidates do not have to be based on geography, and requiring employees to be in the office can result in losing that talent to companies that allow remote work."
Some companies are discovering that some of their employees have moved from the region during the past year due to concerns about COVID-19, but they haven't told their company. One large East Coast-based financial services company had one-third of its workers leave the office area, Hilborn said.
"They relocated to rural areas, and even some smaller urban areas," he said. "They wanted to get out of [less-safe] dense city environments."
C-suites will continue to work through various unintended consequences of continuing remote work, too. "[Remote] employees can lack in proper onboarding, understanding the company culture, skill building and knowledge building," Hilborn said.
'We Now Have a Lot More Leeway'
Companies' reopening policies established a few months ago were set up with hard and fast rules, but with recent announcements from the CDC about fewer restrictions, "we now have a lot more leeway in what we can do," said Kevin Rooney, chief administrative officer at West Monroe.
Because much of West Monroe's recent hiring occurred during the pandemic, about 30 percent of its workforce has never set foot in West Monroe's offices, which are open every day. Newer employees are offered a tour and free lunch if they come in on Fridays.
Pre-pandemic, West Monroe had been planning openings for several offices with added perks and amenities, such as videoconferencing. "Boy, that turned out well," Rooney said.
Hiding in a Cubicle Is No Way to Work
Companies are rethinking how they set up their offices for the workers who do return, Hilborn said. "Having staff sit in a cubicle with their heads faced down and not engaging with others is not the ideal setup," he said.
Hilborn said companies are creating guidelines for how to manage their employees based on personas:
- Working remotely full time.
- Working in the office full time.
- Working in the office 50 percent of the time or less.
- Working in the office 50 percent of the time or more.
"Based on the work environment, the position's responsibilities and the supervisory role, these guidelines prescribe how often managers will check in with the employees, how to conduct one-on-one coaching and how their performance will be measured," Hilborn said.
"These guidelines, like most return-to-office policies, were determined by a multidisciplinary employee committee that included HR, IT, risk management, and line and practice workers," he added. West Monroe expects to finalize and introduce its guidelines in about a month.
Rooney said "fun" is part of his company's culture, and a fun office environment can be used to incentivize employees to return. For example, workers can give themselves new job titles and declare themselves " 'chief' whatever they want," Rooney said.
"One employee named himself chief hot sauce officer, and he had a few others join his department and the fun and met to discuss hot sauce and even set up a Zoom event for judging hot sauce," he said.
In-office fun's ripple effect is creating business value. "By coming in, it inspires them to collaborate personally on their work and learn from each other," Rooney said. "They can build the kind of rapport that they can't get from Zoom."
Rooney also acknowledged that "everyone has their own personal perspectives about the pandemic situation and returning to the office, and we have to respect that."
Measure Employees' Anxiety About Their Return
Reetu Sandhu is director at Limeade Institute, an HR services company that helps companies improve the employee experience.
"As businesses are eager to return to 'normal' and bring staff back to the office," Sandhu said, "many organizations are offering incentives and creating policies to entice those who may be hesitant about going back to the workplace. But what we're seeing is that employees might not feel the same level of eagerness."
A recent study from Limeade found that nearly all formerly onsite workers surveyed are anxious about returning to the office.
"It's important that we pause and bring employees into the fold before diving into back-to-office policies," Sandhu said. "This is going to be an important moment that could make or break the relationship between employees and their companies. Is there a two-way conversation happening? Do companies even know how their employees feel?"
Limeade's report found that 56 percent of employees surveyed haven't even been asked by their employers how they feel about return-to-workplace policies.
"Rather than luring workers before they are ready, organizations should gather employee sentiment about returning to the workplace and then be prepared to act accordingly. Ask employees, 'What do you want work to look like this year?' It doesn't have to be a black-and-white where employees are either at the physical office Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or they are fully working from home."
Sandhu said most want something in between.
"If employers reopen their doors to the old way of work without [having] this conversation, employees are not going to respond well to that environment," Sandu said. "Employee care is imperative as employees consider their options post-pandemic, with more than half of employees considering leaving their current jobs if they aren't given flexibility. Simply put, organizations cannot afford to push more workers out of the organization due to a lack of care and listening."
Some C-suites are anxious about the reopening as well. PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan told The Wall Street Journal he anticipates his company will make "a lot of little mistakes," and his goal is to "not wake up a year from now and find we made a major mistake."
Sandhu said HR practices are imperative to the success of employee engagement. HR departments can implement anonymous surveys to gather employee sentiment, monitor for signs of burnout and stress, create policies that support workers' needs, and more.
"HR should advocate to ensure a company has a positive work environment where employees feel listened to, included and cared for," Sandhu said. "For these efforts to be impactful, however, HR teams also need buy-in from executives and managers. These HR and companywide efforts ultimately lead to the overall success of the business, and this next year is no exception."
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.