How to get staff back into the office

In my last article, I referenced a recent study conducted by PWC whereby 75% of employees surveyed stated they would like to perform the administrative duties of their job from home. That’s a majority. A lot of employers on the other hand are realising the missed opportunities of having people back in the office. Reaching the middle ground of hybrid work, seems to be a realistic model for business leaders to implement. Employees can still enjoy the freedom to work from home some of the time, but come in to the office some of the time too.  

With remote work being the norm for the last couple of years, what has become apparent is that a lot, in fact most, of the effort to made to keep teams engaged and connected has come from leaders and managers, not so much from employees.  

How leaders get people back into the office?

Here are some strategies and approaches businesses are pursuing, including some clients I work closely with, to get their people to return to work;  

  • Change the narrative/ language around flexible work arrangements; HR departments across corporate Australia have been actively encouraging a return to the office for some time. In many businesses this may have started as a softly, softly approach. Perhaps leaders came into the office themselves to try to set a good example and entice others to follow suit without explicitly forcing a return to work. What may have started as gentle persuasion, in many businesses, is becoming increasingly more urgent and enforced. The language is changing, and leaders are employing a range of different tactics that sit on a continuum between “Mandated” through “Strongly Encouraged” through to “Incentives and selling”.  
  • Change how we perceive flexible work arrangements;  An effective strategy is to change how people view WFH arrangements. They need to be seen as a privilege rather than an entitlement. Employee communication can be delivered that states that what was a necessity in the time of pandemic, has now shifted to become a privilege in time of normal work. This change of language is in an effort to start to shift employees’ mindsets about how they think about WFH. After all, ‘flexible working’ was probably not in their initial employment contract, so remote working is not by any means set in stone in their employment agreement. Ensuring this kind of messaging is clearly communicated is essential in restoring employee buy-in to a full or partial return to the office. Once this mindset shift has occurred, employees are much more likely to feel like they have a win-win situation if they are allowed to work from home some of the time. With this type of messaging in place, remote working may be seen as the perk that it is actually is, rather than the norm.  
  • Specify exactly what days and activities employees are expected to be in the office for; As I touched on in the last article, one of my clients made the observation that around 60% of the work employees do can be done from home, the remaining 40% is more about exploring opportunities, finding synergies between teams, resolving cross-departmental points of friction and finding out how they can add value to the client. This kind of work can only be given full justice within the office setting, where teams congregate together in person. Some businesses I work with have made it clear that there are days that employees must be in the office or non-negotiables reasons when they are expected to be onsite. For those days and occasions where staff are able to work from home, they are expected to dial in for meetings, and have their camera switched on for Zoom meetings etc. Setting up clear expectations is vital.  
  • Specify that WFH will have implications for your career within the business. One of my clients has implemented this as a statement of fact, not a threat. If an employee chooses to regularly work from home, they will be less likely to build and maintain strong networked relationships across the organisation. Furthermore, they may be at a disadvantage for career progression and promotion if they are then competing against someone who is well known and seen in and around the organisation. Being clear with employees who do want to progress will help them realise the benefits to coming into the office more, as well as the drawbacks of working from home too often.  
  • Clarify expectations around engagement and performance with teams who are more likely to have a WFH culture; The responsibility needs to shift from leaders to employees to actively build engagement if they choose to WFH. When these standards are not met, leaders and managers are encouraged to have the conversation with the team member about how performance needs to lift. 
  • Consciously build relationships by ensuring there is time in online meetings to connect in a way that is more than just around work; Leaders keen to keep a hybrid or remote working model, need to continue to pursue efforts to actively keep teams engaged and build rapport. Some examples include baby photo competitions, check-in questions, online team building activities. When choosing a check in question some clients are going the extra mile and selecting a question that best evokes the sort of energy the manager wants their team to bring into the meeting. For example: If you want people to stay curious, ask something along the lines of “what’s something that is puzzling you at the moment?” If you want people to be feeling happy ask questions like “what is something that made you smile recently?” If you want people to be connected to purpose and have a sense of perspective ask questions like “tell us about a time recently when you thought to yourself ‘that’s why I do this job!”. 

Transitioning from a remote working environment to a back to office model is not easy, but there are steps leaders can take to make it less difficult. I’d love to hear how you are getting staff to come back into the office more. If your leadership team could do with my help get in touch today, I’d love to hear from you.

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