Two years into a global pandemic, with several stops and starts, many employers are planning a return to an in-person or hybrid work model (in-person blended with remote work). Companies that postponed returning to office due to COVID-19 variants are now beginning to develop a model of what work will look like, at least for the next couple of years. This is an opportunity for workplace leaders to review stopgap policies for remote work and translate them into forward-thinking engagement and retention strategies that can support them during an uncertain economy.
About 50% of leaders say their company already requires or is planning to require employees to return to in-person work full-time in the next year, according to new research from Microsoft, which surveyed 31,102 workers around the world between January and February of 2022.
This number stands in sharp contrast, however, to what employees really want: flexibility. In the same report, 52% of workers said that they are thinking of switching to a full-time remote or hybrid job in 2022. As for employees that have begun to return to a central office location, the same research reports that 38% of hybrid employees say that knowing when and why to come into the office has been their biggest challenge navigating work in recent months, as only 28% of leaders have defined why and when to go to the office in their plans.
Creating a Return to Office Plan That Includes All Employees
Getting back to a return to office, or RTO, requires intentional engagement, communication, and bringing the voice of employees into the conversation. Our current labor market indicates that employees are not afraid to quit if their needs aren’t being met. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest JOLTS report, another 4.3 million Americans left their jobs in January. Here are five considerations for planning your return to office, whether fully in-person or a hybrid of remote and in-person work:
1. Make marginalized groups feel welcome.
A Future Forum study found that 91% of black employees stated they didn’t want to go back to the office because of discrimination and microaggressions. By contrast, 21% of white professionals want to go back to the office full-time. Ensure that resources for historically underrepresented groups are available to both in-person and remote workers, including employee resource groups (ERGs) and company DEI initiatives.
2. Keep your remote employees engaged.
Allowing remote workers to be a part of in person meetings, employee celebrations and events are important to start planning for now before it happens. A return to office while even a small percentage of your workforce remaining remote can be isolating if the remote employees feel excluded from what’s happening at your HQ.
3. Returning office equipment.
We’ve been working from home for two and a half years. You need a plan to return equipment and account for it, especially if employees have relocated or are only coming to the office on a semi-regular basis. Have a point person in place to identify employee assigned laptops and other equipment by logging serial numbers (or matching them with equipment sent out during the early days of the shutdown).
4. Hybrid hiring processes.
We need in person and online orientations and new hire onboarding that mirror one another. Many companies have switched to virtual onboarding as a default because this method is efficient and remains the same whether or not the onboarding employee plans to work remotely or in the office.
5. Multifaceted communication.
Since we are working hybrid we need to not forget virtual meetings, Slack conversations, and other employee communication that needs to happen both in person and online. Some of your team leaders and managers may need training to help them support both groups, along with virtual tools like Teams, Slack, or Zoom to lead in-office meetings that include remote employees. Additionally, ensure that the communication around your RTO policies are communicated clearly and succinctly to all employees so that there is no confusion about who is expected to be where and when.
Because working remotely has allowed us a certain level of flexibility, creating a hybrid culture and environment that offers flexibility is key to planning RTO. Consider flexible start times and schedules that give on-site workers the ability to handle childcare or household management.
As we look to the post-pandemic workplace, HR and company leaders have an opportunity to redesign their processes, policies and norms with central principles of flexibility, accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, including making hybrid work central to an organizational model.