The return to office is an ongoing transition back to on-site work, and in 2021, a majority (84%) of enterprises are planning their return to the office.
According to Rebecca Corliss, VP of Marketing at VergeSense, the return to office demands that we completely rethink what our expectations and needs are for an office space.
“The office needs to be even more than just a place to work. It should be a dynamic, frictionless and social hub, with a flexible workplace strategy that puts employee experience at the forefront.”
When companies pivoted to remote work in March 2020, leadership teams needed to look at the entire organization to see how different departments and workflows were impacted. The return to office is a transition period that needs to be approached in the same way. Companies need to be transparent with their employees and place their needs at the forefront of their RTO strategy, and formulate a strategy that suits both the enterprise as well as the employees.
Organizational structures are evolving, too and adapting to the changing workplace with the addition of new roles like workplace strategists, workplace experience specialists, and roles dedicated to attendance management and employee safety. Learn about how return to office data is suggesting office space utilization increases globally.
Here are lessons learned from workplace experience leaders and executives to help you design your return to office strategy.
How to Talk to your Employees about Returning to the Office
We are in the midst of The Great Resignation. Workers are leaving their jobs in droves in search of organizations that offer their employees flexible policies, more generous benefits, and an evolved company culture. Ignoring your employees’ new workplace expectations, needs, and preferences risks the possibility of sending a negligent message to your workforce that could very well result in a mass employee exit.
To talk to your employees about returning to the office, begin by creating an atmosphere of open communication and transparency. Be honest with your employees about your thought process surrounding their return, admit the concerns shaping your decision, and be direct about your plan to create a return to work strategy founded on employee experience.
Once you have begun this conversation, take the time to really listen to what your employees have to say and how they are using spaces. A few ways to collect direct employee input and behaviors are:
Survey employees about their expectations for the return to office and their concerns.
Have team leaders conduct roundtable discussions with their team members, then share the employee feedback they gather with company leaders.
Host a virtual town hall meeting for employees to voice their concerns directly to their department and company leaders.
Have an HR representative hold department-wide forums in order to learn more about which jobs and tasks can be performed remotely and which need to be done on-site.
Use a workplace analytics platform to review real-time occupancy patterns and accurate data insights on how employees are using the office.
After you’ve gained insights into your employee expectations and concerns regarding the return to office, use what you’ve learned to influence your return strategy.
3 Return to Office Questions: Answered
As workplace leaders contemplate RTO planning, many are wondering how others are approaching this transition period. Here’s what executives and C-suite teams are wondering about the return to office with insights to help them benchmark industry trends.
1. How many companies are returning to the office?
As mentioned above, 84% of enterprises have declared their intentions to return to the office. Out of those companies, 74% plan to return with a hybrid model of work and only 26% plan to return to a traditional on-site office setting.
However, no two return to office strategies look exactly the same. These hybrid workplace models vary from office to office, depending on any workforce's individual needs. For example, Only 6% of employees returning hybrid, will be able to define their schedules and 79% of enterprises will continue to assign seating for at least 1/4 of employees.
2. When are companies returning to the office after COVID-19?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergence of the Delta variant, and the vaccine rollout, return to office timelines continue to change. If you asked business leaders last year when they thought they’d return to the office, you would hear a variety of different answers that fluctuated month to month.
As businesses have adapted to the new hybrid way of working and updated office spaces to reflect hybrid workstyles and employee safety, organizations are growing more confident in their answers to when and how they’ll support the return to office. Currently, 65% of those planning to return to office will do so by Q3 2021.
Others are adopting a more flexible, agile approach to the return to office that relies on real-time occupancy data to determine daily capacities and a staggered approach to the full office return.
3. How are companies transforming the workplace for the return to office?
As the majority of companies prepare to take a hybrid-leaning approach to the return to office, many are beginning the process by investing in new workplace enablement tools to aid in their workplace transformation. Such tools allow companies to gain real-time insights into how their employees use their office space, to make navigating the return easier for all employees.
2 Return to Office Survey Questions to Ask Employees
Here are the top questions for business leaders to ask their employees in preparation for the return to work.
1. What does your ideal return to office transition look like?
Similarly to how no two hybrid workplace strategies look exactly the same, no two employees have identical expectations for the return to office. Some may hope for complete workplace flexibility, while others prefer a return to a more predictable schedule.
To map out projections for employee use of office space, begin a preliminary data collection period during the initial return to office. Collect workplace data including occupancy data and map out trends, then use projections to determine space needs and ideal distribution of employees in on-site spaces.
2. What are your expectations for the workplace in a post-pandemic world?
For employees who have been working from home since March 2020, the return to office transition has the potential to be disorienting; employees are rebuilding their office routines with a new mindset, new schedule, and new expectations. In order to ease the shift away from remote work as much as possible, it’s important for employees and company leaders to have the same expectations for not only the return to office process, but for the future of work as well.
Even though the focus right now is on safely and efficiently returning to the office, don’t lose sight of what is still to come. After you return to the office, what happens next? In order to set yourself and your teams up for success in the long term, discuss your shared workplace expectations with your employees and establish protocols for analyzing workplace insights on a regular schedule.
3 Return to Work Questions to ask Employers
Here are the top questions that returning employees are asking their company leaders. Leadership teams, managers, and workplace strategists should be prepared to address a number of new company policy concerns and office expectations as new work models emerge.
1. What flexible schedules are available to me?
Some employees will naturally be more prepared to return to the office than others. For organizations taking a hybrid approach to the return to office, there is a good chance that one factor of your return to work strategy includes the allowance of flexible schedules for certain employees.
The most popular flexible schedules are:
Meeting free days— either when an employee is working remotely or in the office
A compressed work week— also known as a 3 or 4-day work week, when an employee fits a full-time (40 hour) work week into less than the typical 5 days
Hybrid— when employees work remotely at least one day of the week
Core hours— when employees reserve a block of hours during the day for uninterrupted solo work when they cannot be contacted
Daily flexible— employees either work on-site or remotely depending on their responsibilities and schedule on that specific day
2. What are the expectations for working in the office?
Similarly, employees need to know what is expected of them once they do return to the office. Assuming it won’t revert to “business as usual”, on-site workers need to be made aware of all policies for working from the office.
Sanitary procedures for keeping shared workspaces clean.
Whether or not on-site employees are required to attend meetings in-person or if they may continue to join virtually from their workspace.
The daily capacity of the office, roughly how many workers will be working on-site on any given day.
3. What safety measures are in place in the office?
In addition to the workplace expectations above, employees also need to be familiar with the safety measures that have been put in place to keep them and their coworkers safe from COVID-19. With 75% of enterprises rating safety as their primary concern for their return to work strategy, it’s clear that a return to office does not mean ignoring the ongoing pandemic.
Wearing masks when in-side, when in enclosed spaces with coworkers, etc.
The use of signage to direct one-way hallway and stairwell traffic, proper sanitization practices, and other safety measures.
Flexible schedules to reduce daily office capacity to allow for social distancing between employees.
Offering pre packaged drinks and snacks instead of communal dining services.
Using Technology to Facilitate the Return to Office
The return to office is an ongoing process that requires consistent monitoring. And although employee surveys are a useful tool for gaining valuable insights into the employee experience, they don’t show companies the full picture of the employee experience.
In order to develop a complete understanding of the success of your return to office strategy as well as the day to day behavior of your on-site employees, implement tech tools into your return to office strategy. Tools such as a workplace analytics platform and RTO Dashboards provide you with the most accurate insights into how your employees are actually using the workspace during the return.