How to Successfully Navigate the Evolution of Return to Office Policy

While many of the changes to daily life prompted by the COVID-19 crisis have been relegated to the past as cases have dropped and the public health danger has lessened, the pandemic’s impact on professional norms is still keenly felt by employers and employees alike.  By far, the chief area of concern for most is the facilitation of a return to in-person work..  Despite high profile dustups at big-name companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Disney over return-to-work policies, research, expert analysis, and anecdotal evidence compiled in a recent article by SHRM indicates that a path forward is possible.

Employers are Eager to Return to the Office

It is evident from recent news headlines that many companies and organizations both big and small are prioritizing the implementation of return-to-office policies. 

Last month, SHRM conducted a survey of 1500 HR professionals regarding the motivating factors driving their company’s return-to-office plans. The primary contributing considerations identified were the need for in-person collaboration and teamwork and the preservation of workplace culture and employee engagement, cited by 75% and 69% of respondents respectively.  Additional contributing factors included personal preferences of company leadership (65%), a desire to restore a sense of normalcy and routine (54%), and concerns over employee productivity (41%).  Additionally, 49% of managers reported observing an uptick in struggles with loneliness and mental health among remote workers, which they believe can be better alleviated in the office.

While many of these factors prompting employers to desire a return to the office center around company culture, overall effectiveness, and employee wellbeing, other sources reveal other motivational anxieties.  A Microsoft survey of company leaders conducted last year saw 85% reporting decreased confidence that their remote employees were productive, while a PwC study found that nearly 40% of CEOs feared that their companies would not be economically viable if they preserved their current work arrangement.  Broader societal concerns, such as bolstering suffering downtowns in economic and business centers, contribute to the preference for in-person work.

As widespread and various as the motivating factors are, they are having a concrete impact on the types of positions employers are offering to job seekers.  According to research conducted by Indeed’s HiringLab, job postings that advertise remote and hybrid work have fallen to just 8.4% in May 2023 from a peak of 10.3%.

Employees Still Prefer Remote Work:

Despite the concerns and fears of employers and the increasing scarcity of remote positions, many employees remain staunch in their preference for remote work.  According to a recent Microsoft study, 52% of workers surveyed said that they want to work hybrid or remote for the remainder of their careers.  What’s more, research from Clarify Capital, a New York-based financial consultancy, indicated that 68% of employees would rather seek a new job than return to the office, with the proportion rising to a staggering 79% among the “Gen Z” cohort.

What is causing this stark preference for remote work? Just as employers have a laundry list of rationales behind their desire for a return to in-person work, workers cite a wide variety of reasons they prefer to work remotely: from better work-life balance to manage child and elder care, to saving money on commutes and office-appropriate clothing, to helping offset a role’s lower pay or lack of advancement opportunity.  Additionally, despite employer’s fears to the contrary, many remote workers profess that they get more done each day working from home; in the same Microsoft survey that saw 85% of employers reporting increased anxiety around remote worker productivity, 87% of workers said that they were productive while working remotely.

Why Consider a Compromise?

It is evident that a full return to in-person work for roles in which remote work is possible may not be feasible for many employers if worker opinion remains as it is.  Research conducted by Unispace showed that nearly 30% of companies who list in-person work as a requirement have reported difficulty filling open positions.  Meanwhile, companies who force a return to the office despite balking workers escalate employee turnover and encounter high hiring costs amid the widespread talent shortages. 

Conversely, a willingness to compromise with employees and develop a function hybrid work model can give smaller companies a competitive edge against bigger organizations with deeper pockets. For instance, when asked about her company’s journey to finding a work arrangement that was acceptable to all, Kara Chamberlain, the talent acquisition manager for disability service provider Ability Beyond, said “it wouldn’t be in our best interest to not offer flexibility and hybrid schedules,” citing that, while her nonprofit cannot match local employers in terms of salary or benefits, flexibility is a perk that can help them stand out.

Employers aren’t alone in benefiting from compromise around work policy. Despite well-documented hesitation to return to the office, the data indicates that employees report overwhelmingly positive outcomes after transitioning back to in-person work in at least some capacity.  According to research conducted by SHRM in June, 71% of employee respondents who had returned to the office reported increased job satisfaction, while about three-quarters said they were more productive and effective.  Additional reported benefits included producing higher output, more collaboration opportunities with collogues, and feeling more engaged at work.  This data may indicate that while the hurdle of worker hesitancy around returning to the office is significant, there may be marked advantages for employees on the other side.

What Works: Consistent, Compassionate Communication

However, simply striking a hybrid schedule compromise between pro-office employers and pro-remote workers is not enough to ensure a smooth transition and a healthy, functional work environment.  After all, many of the highly publicized uproars resulting from large companies’ transitions to in-person work center around hybrid scheduling.  Only last month Farmer Insurance Group’s employees threatened to quit or unionize over the company’s instituting a hybrid work policy requiring only three days per week in the office.  According to organizational and strategic experts, how work policy is developed and implemented contributes as much or more to the success or failure of the policy than the policy itself.

One key recommendation: establishing trust between employers and workers through intentional, compassionate, and - above all - honest communication and messaging.  “I think the heart of this issue [about returning to the office] is about trust,” says PwC’s Workforce Strategy lead Julia Lam. Returning to the Farmer Insurance Group example, it is important to note that the move to hybrid work was a reversal of previous assurances by the company that the option for fully remote work would be offered as a permanent benefit.  It could be argued that such a reversal of policy could have eroded trust between employers and employees.  To build trust, Lam says “leaders have to frame the narrative in a way that takes into consideration the issues at the top of peoples hearts.”

Similarly, organizational leadership expert Flo Falayi, notes a major discrepancy between employer communication during the pandemic and communication now.  “There was this sense around ‘let’s do what’s right for each other.’ Everybody was on the same page,” says Falayi. “Things are lost in translation today. Leaders are not perhaps communicating to the level that the employee is accepting the message.”

When communication is consistent and honest about the rationale behind employer policy, the results can improve significantly, even when the policy is a full return to in-person work.  When interviewed about the process of transitioning the city of Farmington, New Mexico’s 1000 employees who worked remotely during the pandemic back to office work, deputy HR director Jamie Wagoner reported only one employee leaving over the change, noting that all workers were told throughout the crisis that they would have to return when the danger had passed.  In terms of explanation offered to workers, Wagoner notes “Citizens expect us to be in the office,” adding that many of city workers never had the option to work remotely, so it wouldn’t be fair if others retained the privilege post-pandemic, saying “we wanted to show solidarity.”

What Works: Developing Functional Guidelines for New Models 

For organizations moving forward with hybrid models, however, the difference between hassle-free implementation and tension-causing bumps in the road often comes down to developing and executing a plan including clear expectations for remote work. According to Gartner HR consulting senior principal Kayla Velnoskey, creating guidelines to help workers navigate remote work models is crucial, noting that the low percentage of remote-capable employees performing optimally (41%) revealed by her organization’s research is likely the result of companies giving workers flexibility without any guidance on how to make good choices for themselves and the company. “Employees are motivated to make the best decision for their career and the company,” Velnoskey says, “but sometimes they don’t have all the information or support they need to do it.”

Data collected in a recent Mercer survey of 749 companies aligns with this notion, revealing that while the pandemic forced many employers to rapidly shutter their offices and send workers home with little opportunity to prepare, years later many are still operating remote and hybrid work models with little to no formal plan in place.  48% of companies surveyed reported only having informal and ambiguous guidelines to manage flexible work, while 17% have no guidelines at all.  Taking the time to develop a framework of expectations for hybrid workers could improve outcomes significantly for both employers and employees, going a long way to make this new model more viable.