The Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando, Fla., in March, featured a panel of company executives who shared how they are handling return-to-office (RTO) plans and hybrid work. The panel members examined what it takes to get people back into the office, how they see hybrid work evolving, and what works—and doesn't work—in this arena.
Gary LaSasso, senior director of information technology at Amicus Therapeutics in Philadelphia, explained his organization's strategy of connecting every employee anywhere on any device. To achieve that, IT needs to be both technologically flexible and able to meet a company's needs for hybrid work. IT must be agile enough to support a business goal such as "All-In Wednesdays," which then might change to everyone coming in two days a week, and shift again and again until a workable pattern emerges.
"People need to come in for a purpose, with the office being a magnet for employees," LaSasso said. "Part of that is down to technology and business requirements, as well as activities, social events and gimmicks that make people want to come in more."
When the pandemic began three years ago, Amicus told its employees to take their office computing equipment home and work from there. Now, getting them back into the office has meant purchasing new gear that can facilitate the video-first strategy that emerged during work-from-home. The new equipment includes widescreen monitors and docking stations at every workspace, as well as large screens in conference rooms for video meetings. Employees only need to bring their laptop, headset and charger into the office and find an available space. Some spaces can be reserved, while others are on a first-come, first-served basis.
"Employees need seamless, connected rooms with as many spaces as possible equipped with video," LaSasso said. "We try to enable video just about everywhere."
However, RTO success also depends on company leaders, he noted. They must ensure there is a strong purpose for in-office meetings, and they need to be visible in the building if they expect others to show up. The last thing you want is the RTO campaign to fail because the bosses never appeared.
Employee Personas Dictate Office Presence
The panel members also pointed out that each company has a unique situation, so no single hybrid work strategy is going to fit all organizations. At insurance firm NFP, based in New York City, employee personas have been developed that determine who comes in when and for how long, based on the functions of each role. Some are set at zero-to-one days per week and others are set at three days─or every day. However, these personas are not yet being strictly enforced.
A critical aspect of the strategy is allowing employees to have a tech setup that follows them, said Mark Grosvenor, executive vice president and chief technology officer at NFP. He explained that personnel are being encouraged to come in according to their personas. However, in-person attendance won't be required until after the summer, when vacations are over and kids are back in school.
NFP also makes it possible for friends and work associates to sit together via its desk-booking system.
Like LaSasso, Grosvenor said heavy enforcement of in-office presence is not the wisest approach.
"People have gone three years without a commute and have gotten used to working at home," he said. "One of the compelling reasons to come in is that there are fewer people present, so there is more access to executives than ever before. It is also important to tell people how much you appreciate their coming in and the role it plays in attracting others."
Grosvenor added that the mode of working in an office is not going away, noting that the office facilitates learning, chance meetings and unexpected interactions that won't happen online.
Another tactic used by NFP is the RingCentral app. As employees began using their personal cellphones for work, NFP installed the app, which channels all call traffic to work numbers. That way, if an employee leaves the company, NFP doesn't lose contact with their clients.
The Team Approach
Mastercard takes a different, team-based approach to RTO, though the strategy continues to evolve. Each team reaches an agreement with its managers about where work will be done. The schedule is based on the requirements of team members' roles, as well as the needs of employees, and lays out expectations on the number of days teams should come to work. Some teams come into the office once a week and some three days, while others are completely remote.
"We have forums and feedback sessions about how it is going," said Stacy Foster, vice president, Technology Hub, at Mastercard. "All agreements are transparent so you can see what other teams are doing and what their in-office expectations are."
In addition, potential recruits are briefed on these expectations in advance. Foster said it's important to ask about their willingness to commute and be in the office for a certain length of time.
"You have to understand that you are competing with the laundry, leaving the pets alone, and sitting for hours in a car or traveling on public transport in bad weather," she said.
Foster added that if the budget isn't there for snacks or free lunches, little things such as bringing in doughnuts can help entice people back to the workplace. Companies can also arrange all-hands activities to draw people in. Also, don't rely on one gimmick. Stack in-office activities so there are multiple things occurring at the same time or on the same day.
"Provide more than one incentive to come to the office," Foster said. "Engage with employees to ensure they have the tools they need available in the office and at home to do the best job possible. Have processes in place to make it easy to acquire an additional monitor for home. Show that you care about the employee experience."
Drew Robb is a freelance writer in Clearwater, Fla., specializing in IT and business.