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It was easy to go home because we had to. Now, how do we get people to want to come back?
In 2019, less than 6% of American workers worked primarily from home. Then COVID hit, and by May 2020, 35% of workers worked completely remotely, as high as 57% among professional and management occupations.
Now, business leaders want people back in the office. Without in-person workplace interactions, leaders see workers missing out on building vital connections that facilitate collaboration and innovation and the soft skills gained by interacting with people at various levels within the company.
But according to Pew research, 61% of remote workers say they work from home because they prefer to. Among knowledge workers unsatisfied with their current workplace flexibility, 71% said they were open to finding another job in the oncoming year. Demanding workers come back will drive quit rates and turn off new talent.
The best way to bring workers back to the office is by inviting them and making it an inviting place where people want and need to be.
Related: Should You Bring Employees Back to the Office?
Social engagement is a good start.
A 2022 workplace trends survey found that 77% of responding organizations had adopted a hybrid model and most employed an “at-will” policy of office attendance. To encourage people to return, 88 % use incentives to draw people to the office, including exaggerated efforts, like Microsoft’s beer and wine tastings, Qualcomm’s group fitness classes and Google’s private concert featuring Lizzo.
Many companies have made similar, less extravagant, efforts to lure people back with promises of food and social activities, which is a great place to start. According to the 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index, 85% of employees said rebuilding team bonds would motivate them to return to the office. Other 2022 surveys also found face-to-face collaboration and socialization as the top draws of office time.
As we come back from nearly two years of working outside of the office, a focus on building social capital is important, but the office can’t be all about parties. The benefits of improved collaboration and innovation come from a healthy culture where people are free to bring themselves to work. Socialization can get that ball rolling and be a significant draw to get people back to the office, but more efforts are needed to make it a necessary place to work.
Related: The Case For Going Back To The Office
Build an inviting space
Invest in creating a physical environment conducive to a hybrid world where people need and want to be to get their best work done. Renovate office spaces to fit evolving intentions. In an Envoy workplace survey of 800 workers, 61% said their companies had changed their physical workplace to accommodate a hybrid model. Leaders at Marriot, Capital One and Spotify are prioritizing comfortability, communal spaces and more conference rooms for collaboration and dialogue.
People don’t come back to the office to work in a cube. They come back to sit together and work with others in ways that Zoom is less effective. At Clearfield, we are creating the image of what we want our home base mothership (and we do call it the “mothership”) office to become in this hybrid world, starting with significant renovations. We kept the bright, open, well-lit space, and we did away with most of the aisles of cube farms. We built conference rooms and a lot of training spaces.
Related: It Might Be a Company-Ending Mistake to Go Back to the Office
Invite them to learn more and grow
In our shift to hybrid, one of our strongest considerations is a focus on training. By building dedicated training rooms, we support internal growth opportunities, incentivizing people to be at the office to gain more knowledge and grow. It also introduces social opportunities to hold recognition ceremonies at the office as people are promoted.
Interaction among our sales organization had typically been with customers, not one another, so when we got sent home, they felt the benefits of working remotely full-time. But as we grew larger and started to train and promote people from within, the salespeople who became leads and supervisors suddenly realized the need to bring in their teams and train. From the leadership position of a growing company, it becomes easier to see what makes coming together to learn and advance so critical.
Attract people to the office with training and opportunities to do their jobs better, and let them see room for growth within the company. I believe people want to do their jobs well and want access to information that could help them do that. Our new office training rooms give employees access to resources to improve their hard and soft skills. We’re also investing in a learning management system to help track all of our training opportunities and to get them out to more of our employees.
Invite with expectations
Invite people back, but with expectations. Some leaders enter into a hybrid or work-from-home model and remain unclear in their expectations. They want people in the office but let team members’ level of “hybrid” be user-led. The trend of companies allowing unlimited PTO, for example, will enable people to define the total time they take off individually. Still, unless everyone really believes they can and should be allowed to take six or seven weeks of vacation, they would probably never attempt to test those boundaries. Without expectations, so much autonomy exists in a cloud of uncertainty.
Leaders should also set expectations around meetings and schedule them with intention. Our design engineers lead our product innovation programs and typically host weekly product reviews, but after COVID, we had to start doing them over Zoom. Once we could, these meetings were the first thing we brought back. Lead engineers needed their peers to touch the prototypes and experience them first-hand with a full range of senses, including the sixth sense — intuition — that got lost over a Zoom call.
Inviting people back to the office is much more powerful than demanding that they come back, but that invitation needs to come with more than free food and parties — it should come with planning and clear expectations. Turn the office into a place where people want and need to go and draw them there in ways that encourage them to be more productive.