5 ways HR can help soften the blow of return-to-office mandates

A number of industry titans are busy ramping up return-to-office policies and launching incentive programs to bring remote workers back into offices, despite the approaching lazy days of summer and the likelihood they’ll face great opposition from workers. HR leaders, however, can play a critical role in helping the C-suite shape return policies that benefit the business while still addressing employee needs.

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In the past five weeks alone, Chipotle announced that corporate staff needs to be in the office four days a week versus three, Bloomberg reports; insurance giant Farmers Group replaced earlier assurances of permanent, full-time remote work with requirements of three days a week in the office, according to the Wall Street Journal. And software company Salesforce announced $10 per-day charitable donations for each day an employee is in the office from June 12-23, reports Fortune.

Rubab Jaray O’Connor, professor of management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says such return-related announcements have been increasing over the last year. A large driver, she says, could be that CEOs are concerned about paying for vacant office space; office space occupancy has steadily risen since the pandemic, reaching over 50% across 10 metro U.S. cities at the start of the year. It has largely stayed in that range over the past six months, according to employee card swipe data from Kastle Systems.

Role of timing in return-to-office announcements

However, employers should consider already-soaring rates of employee stress and burnout—and how mandated return policies, especially if they aren’t rolled out strategically, can aggravate that problem, she says.

For instance, workers who were promised remote work but are now being called back to the office may be fretting about relocating, rearranging schedules to accommodate child or eldercare arrangements, and determining the best way to juggle work, school or other obligations that were started during the pandemic, which officially is no longer considered a public health emergency, as of May.

An additional complication is that the recent high-profile announcements were made as summer kicks off: It’s a time when employees are seeking to take vacations to recharge and relax and, if possible, extend their travel by working remotely. 

“I think leaders need to think about that,” O’Connor told HRE

It’s these types of employee concerns, she notes, that HR needs to make clear to business leaders as they strategize for return-to-office policies. 

Related: Will hybrid work schedules move to 4 days in the office?

5 must-haves in your return-to-office strategy

Employers can soften the blow of these announcements, particularly those coming this summer, by taking some of the steps offered by experts:

1. Provide more than three months for employees to prepare.

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Farmers, like a number of companies, previously gave assurances to employees that they could work remotely permanently if they desired. But it is now changing course, mandating employees return to the office in the next three months. In some cases, employees sold their homes to relocate to other areas and are now feeling the stress of selling their new homes or quitting their employers. 

As a result, O’Connor says, employers should delay the start of return-to-office policies that are now being announced until the new year. “I think three months is a very short window,” she says. “It’s like ‘boom.’ It’s all of a sudden.”

2. Ensure flexibility for in-person meetings and gatherings.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School specializing in the future of work and changing geography of work, tells HRE that HR leaders may want to suggest alternatives to requiring a return to the office to their CEOs.

“Hybrid doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the office for a certain number of days every week. Hybrid can mean you and your team are co-located and the frequency and location of where you meet is based on what the team wants,” says Choudhury.

The frequency could range from a few times a week to once a month or once a quarter. And these meetings and gatherings do not necessarily need to take place in the office. For example, Choudhury notes, some Japanese companies will schedule employee meetings in train station conference rooms, given the popularity of trains in Japan.

He adds that teams should be transparent with the rest of the company about their hybrid arrangements, and leaders should encourage internal mobility so employees can feel comfortable moving to a team with a schedule and location that fits their needs.

3. Consider grandfathering in special circumstances.

Some employees may need to remain remote to care for a sick family member or may have sold their house to relocate and could suffer a financial loss if they had to move back for work.

In those cases and others, employers may want to consider “grandfathering” in the full-time, permanent remote position, but with limitations, writes HRE expert Peter Cappelli, professor of education and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in a recent HRE column.

“Grandfathering arrangements traditionally did not mean that everything continued as normal for those employees,” Cappelli cautions. “It meant that they were frozen: You can keep what you have until you retire or some fixed date, but don’t expect to advance along with your peers.”

4. Offer enticements, not punishment, for return-to-office.

With unemployment at record levels, it’s easy for employees to jump ship to another employer who is willing to offer fully remote or more attractive hybrid working arrangements. As a result, the stick approach is likely to lead to retention problems. 

“What I’m seeing with trends are employers creating and implementing programs designed to attract employees to come back to the office,” O’Connor says. 

She pointed to enterprise software giant SAP, which offers employees various benefits when they work in the office. These include free lunch once a week, access to a breast milk shipping service for lactating parents who are traveling for work and flexible spending accounts for transit and parking.

5. Focus on empowerment and listening.

Employees will feel empowered when leaders allow them to make decisions on their work schedule and location, regardless of certain limitations to those parameters. But empowerment can also come from feeling you are heard.

“Employees need to be heard before [leaders are] imposing return-to-office decisions on them. It can be a tricky situation because they have gone through a lot of stress already with the pandemic and you are adding more stress,” O’Connor notes. “I think people will be more happy coming back once they feel their point was heard and you knew their situation.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.