How employers can lure workers back to the office

Question: Like many employers, we want our employees to return onsite but don’t want to force them to return and have many of them quit. We want our employees to want to return. How do we do that?

Answer: An Oct. 30 Wall Street Journal article reported, “There is a magical land where the temperature is always 72 degrees, the Wi-Fi never goes down, and there is always someone to talk to.” Except, multiple surveys show few employees want to return full time to that magical land, their former workplace. Many employees want to work from home three or more days a week.

If you’re an employer, how do you change that?

Envoy/Wakefield’s August 2021 online survey of 1,000 U.S. employees and Leanin’s June to August 2021 survey of over 65,000 employees offer suggestions for employers that want their employees to return. According to these surveys, employees who returned to their employer’s offices noted these advantages to onsite work:

  • separates work from home life (46 percent);
  • makes it easier to collaborate in person (44 percent);
  • enables employees to see work friends (39 percent);
  • provides face time with managers (39 percent); and
  • provides better Wi-Fi and desk ergonomics (32 percent).

Clearly, onsite work has advantages. But do your employees see them? Here’s what I recommend. Ask your employees for their answers in a way that helps them remember what they once liked about working onsite and lets them know you won’t force them to return to a work environment that no longer meets their needs. Bring your employees for a two-hour meeting, with snacks, and ask them questions such as “What do you enjoy most and least about working remotely?”, “What needs to change or be different at the workplace for you to want to return?” and “What do you miss about the workplace?”

Listen to their answers. Here’s what I suspect you’ll discover, along with suggestions for altering your workplace to fit what you learn. Employees don’t want to return to the former normal. They will, however, give their employer a chance to make changes if they see them happening quickly and in response to their views.

Employees care about safety protocols. Let your employees know the safeguards you’ve put in place, such as requiring everyone to get vaccinated or tested weekly, upgraded ventilation systems or air purifiers, physically distanced workstations, touchless equipment, sanitation procedures and self-cleaning surfaces, and weekly deep cleaning.

Employees have discovered and now crave workday flexibility. Does your workday need to remain 8 to 5 or can you allow employees to work a split day so parents can pick up their children at school and finish their work at home? Can you give nonparents similar freedom? Can you structure tasks that require interdependent work and team collaboration during work hours when most employees are onsite, and allow employees to work remotely on tasks done best in isolation?

Employees resent commute time. Can you incorporate flex time and allow employees to choose when they go into the office?

Many employees feel more comfortable in casual wear. Can you relax your dress code?

Your employees’ discussion will remind many that while they’re cozy at home, at-home offices have downsides such as uncomfortable workstations, unpredictable Wi-Fi, inefficient printers, interruptions from kids, and a lack of people whose jobs include making technology work.

During the meeting, announce any improvements you are planning to make your company workspace more inviting, whether that’s protein bars and fresh fruit in the breakroom, a new Nespresso machine, or high-resolution monitors for anyone who works in the office more than a couple of days a week.

The meeting itself will remind what they missed — each other and a sense of shared purpose.

Finally, managers who hope to supervise employees as they did pre-pandemic will come up short. Effective managers can recognize and reward employees who accomplish strong results, whether onsite or working remotely. They can spot and deal with employees who don’t hold up their end of the deal and either need to return onsite full time or be blessed out the door.

Our lives have changed. Our workplaces need to change, and so do we.