Aligning Hybrid Work Approaches with Changing Expectations
While many organizations have implemented their return to office (RTO) strategies, many plans have fallen flat. Employees are no longer talking about what it will be like being back in the office a few days a week, as we can now actually do it. Yet, when few people are in the office to work or connect with, why would anyone make the effort?
With the introduction of choice, we are navigating an environment that gets to the heart of an organization. The impact on process, people, and technology is being tested – as are the financial implications of empty office space.
What’s Going On?
There is lack of a compelling reason ‘why’ employees should come back. A number of issues are contributing to the concern of business leaders who are looking to foster in-person connections and collaboration, and protect their culture:
- Employee concerns about the cost of commuting and health and safety are deterrents
- Returning to the office is not purposeful and employees do not want to be in the office with only a few colleagues present
- There is a lack of leadership clarity on the amount of in-office working that is expected of employees
- Enforcing a return to office will most likely impact a company’s ability to recruit and retain talent
- Managers have been asked to define and implement their team(s)’ hybrid working approach, which is causing inconsistency across teams
Interrelated Issues Require an Integrated Plan
Without alignment, protocols, and purpose, employees are less likely to show up. A disjointed approach to the return to office will not deliver the benefits of a well-orchestrated initiative that addresses intricately connected issues.
Gain leadership alignment. Leaders need to set their personal opinions aside and align on what is best for the business. There may be differences of opinion on the benefits of being in the office. Determining the reasons for any difference, taking a short- and long-term view when planning, and adopting a ‘lessons learned approach’ for RTO should be step #1.
Make in-office time purposeful. Whether mentoring, building relationships or fostering culture and community, compelling demonstrations of how in-person interactions support this are required. Well-designed brainstorming sessions where employees can generate ideas, scheduled ‘open time’ for access to leaders, and workspaces that offer a better experience than working from home will give people a reason to come to the office.
Clearly define flexible work. Organizations are compelled to offer work flexibility to respond to new employee expectations and effectively recruit and retain talent. Most recognize that providing employee choice and control leads to significant benefits for employees and organizations alike, per the 2022 Cisco Global Hybrid Work Study. Nonetheless, there are also benefits to in-person time, and if an organization shifts from ‘we’d like you back’ to ‘we expect you back for certain work activities,’ the level of flexibility allowed should be clear.
Equip people leaders. Asking people leaders and managers to decide what is best for their teams often makes sense, but it has created inconsistency, and with it, the potential for employee backlash. Any plan to draw employees back to the office should provide manager-specific communications and , to equip them to lead hybrid teams and deal with any employee resistance.
Prioritize employee well-being. Going to the office raises justified employee concerns. Increasing cases of the Omicron sub-variant will likely eliminate any sense of ‘normal’ achieved over recent months. Compounding this is the cost of commuting, loss of personal time, or possible dependent care. An RTO approach should incorporate tangible activity to care for employees, whatever the future brings. If not evident, drawing people back will be tough.
The bottom line is, if organizations expect people back and want to realize associated benefits, they need to say it clearly and action it with a demonstrable, well-considered, and integrated plan.
Rachel Jefferies is Vice President of Workplace Advisory at Colliers in Toronto, whose work focuses on enabling organizations to successfully navigate the changing workplace.