5 Questions About Returning to the Office

There is still much uncertainty about when most people who have been working from home during the pandemic will be able — or asked — to return to their offices. Here’s how to approach the subject with your team.

Author: Michelle Russell       

return to office

Experts advise employers to take a thoughtful approach to adopting a hybrid remote/in-office workforce strategy when the time comes to go back to the office.

There are workers who can’t wait to go back to go back to the office, others who worry when they’ll be asked to stop working from home, and those who would like to mix it up — some days in the office, some days remote — in a post-COVID world. No matter their preferences, many don’t know what their organization’s policy will be.

Employers are still figuring that out, with vaccinations getting off to a rocky start and COVID-19 variants making the headlines. Even when it’s safe to head back to offices, the question remains: What has this forced WFH experiment shown us about the future of work?

Two experts debated the question “Do Workers Need to Return to the Office After the Coronavirus Threat Subsides?” in a SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) article in November. Chuck Bean, a partner with market research firm The Martec Group, said that research conducted by Martec found that only 16 percent of 1,200 U.S. employees surveyed said they were thriving in a WFH environment.

On the other side of the argument, FlexJobs Vice President of People and Culture Carol Cochran cited research showing that remote work results in increased productivity, decreased real estate costs, happier and more engaged employees, a smaller environmental footprint, and access to a more diversified talent pool, among other benefits. In addition, Cochran said, in a global survey from PwC, 78 percent of CEOs said that they think remote work is “here to stay.”

Both experts agreed on this: There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and employers should take a thoughtful approach to adopting a hybrid remote/in-office workforce strategy.

In their latest newsletter, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, co-authors of the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, shared their ideas for approaching employees about a possible return to work. They suggested sending out a survey with these five questions:

  1. How many days a week would you like to work in the office?
  2. What will make the return to the office easier for you?
  3. Are there any extenuating circumstances you’re willing to share that might make a return to offices especially hard or scary for you?
  4. What types of work would you prefer to do from the office (e.g., large staff meetings, new team meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc.)?
  5. What types of work would you prefer to do from home?

Then, they said, share the results. “If you want employees to be in the office five days a week again, and the survey shows that employees want to be in the office two days a week, it’s a bad move to simply ignore that information,” they write. “Instead, use it as a jumping-off point for honest conversations and productive compromise.”

Moreover, they advise leaders to give their people “as much certainty about the future as possible” even though “no one really knows what the world will look like six months from now.” That can be a simple matter of leaders communicating what they’re thinking, Fosslien and West Duffy said, “even if that just means saying, ‘We’ll definitely be working from home through June and then we’ll re-evaluate.”

We’ve come to accept uncertainty — and it’s preferable, the co-authors write, to “actively ignoring the issue.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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