The top reasons to tread carefully with your return-to-office plans

As many large employers ramp up returning to offices this spring, a worrying disconnect is emerging between workers and employers that HR leaders need to monitor given its possible impact on employee retention.

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A majority of managers, according to a recent survey, believe that a full-time return to the office will happen soon (60%) and even more (75%) want workers in the office, citing a potential lack of focus, loss of company culture and diminished productivity if they don’t return. At the same time, nearly as many of those managers (73%) also agreed that employee productivity and engagement had either improved or stayed the same compared with pre-COVID in-office work.

Also revealed is a divide between “how managers feel about managing remote workers and the productivity their teams are maintaining in remote work settings,” says Max Wesman, chief operating officer for GoodHire, which commissioned the survey, titled The Great Return: Survey of Managers Reveals Return to Office Battle in 2022. The San Francisco-based provider of employment and background screening services asked 3,500 U.S. managers about remote work, return-to-office mandates, and their preferred working model. “Clearly, managers are struggling.”

In addition, the survey found that 77% of managers reported that they would be willing to dole out “severe consequences”—including firings, pay cuts and loss of promotion opportunities—to those who refuse to return to the office.

However, forcing employees to return to the office could do serious harm in several ways, since remote work is no longer a COVID coping mechanism but a permanent part of work, according to Julie Voges, regional managing director, HR Consulting, at OneDigital, an insurance brokerage, financial services and HR consulting firm in Atlanta.

Focus on Flexibility

Today, only a handful of employees (12%) report that they prefer to always work in the office, while most (80%) expect their prospective employer to allow them to work remotely several days a week, she says, citing the GoodHire survey. And a recent study from Owl Labs indicates that the vast majority of workers (92%) expect to work from home at least one day a week and nearly as many (80%) expect it at least three days a week, she says.

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“With this in mind, it’s critical for employers to have a process to review and evaluate who is eligible to work remotely and the criteria that determine eligibility,” Voges says. “After all, it’s a slippery slope to just ‘give in’ to employees’ remote work requests. Employers should ensure that they consistently enforce their policies to avoid any potential discrimination claims.”

The data also provides more evidence that flexibility “is the name of the game” for today’s workforce, she says. With nearly one in three (32%) employees in the GoodHire survey saying they would leave their current company if they were not offered remote work options, it will be vital to create environments that foster flexibility in order to retain employees now and in the future, she says.

“What many workplaces once considered impossible to do from home can now often be completed from almost anywhere in the world, further highlighting the capabilities of hybrid/flexible work environments,” Voges says. “Employers should be seizing the opportunity to think outside the box about workplace arrangements they can offer and prioritize making them as attractive as possible to attract and retain talent.”

Possible Pitfalls

Stephanie Lovell, career expert and head of communications at Hirect, a chat-based, direct hiring platform focused on startups, calls it a “dangerous time” for employers to be drawing rigid lines in the sand.

“The job market is hot and making decisions that could potentially alienate a significant portion of your workforce are more likely to backfire and lead to an exodus of talent rather than bring everyone back harmoniously under one roof,” she says.

Companies forcing employees back to the office are likely to see a percentage of employees who simply refuse and decide to take their talents elsewhere. “Most professionals understand their options have never been greater to transition into new roles or new employers,” she says.

Also, those who begrudgingly agree to return to an in-office arrangement may see a steep decline in their satisfaction and motivation, which could hurt company culture, employee morale and overall productivity.

Finally and, Lovell says, perhaps most importantly, forcing people back into offices severely restricts the talent pools that companies can “fish in.”

So, rather than attracting talent from anywhere in the country—or the world—these employers now can consider only candidates living in a limited geographic area or who agree to relocate. And this doesn’t include potential hires who may discount the company altogether due to their inflexible policies even if they reside within a specific geographic target, she adds.

What Can Leaders Do?

For HR leaders guiding managers of remote teams, Lovell and Voges make similar suggestions for success that focus on connection and communication.

Voges suggests employers lead with empathy and keep an open dialogue with employees to ensure workers feel safe, adding that holding discussions around which aspects of the workplace environment are helping them thrive—and making strides to reduce employee stress and anxiety—will ease the adjustment back to office life.

Lovell advocates for setting regular reconnects for teams to review priorities, designate responsibilities, highlight significant wins or milestones, and answer questions.

“Confusion thrives in ambiguity,” Lovell says. “In environments where teams are partially or completely remote, there’s always potential for miscommunication, missed deadlines and key tasks falling through the cracks.”

She also suggests coaching managers to prioritize weekly informal one-on-ones with their direct reports to assess workload, challenges and other needs individually.

Ultimately, Lovell says, “communication is king.”

Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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