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May 23, 2024

The ultimate guide to the return to office

Here’s your Ultimate Guide to getting your return to office policy right for your organization—and your people.
Amy KirkhamEnvoy Logo
Senior Content Marketing Manager Alumni
Marketing Specialist

For some organizations, the big return to office (RTO) may have already happened in the years following the pandemic. But for many others, 2024 signals a stronger shift back to physical workplaces—a recent survey found that 96% of organizations are encouraging or mandating onsite work this year.  

The return to office hype that has followed the pandemic has divided people and their organizations. On one hand, some employees want flexibility and autonomy over their work schedule and location. On the other hand, organizations want in-person presence to drive culture, team bonding, and productivity. Hybrid work (also referred to as distributed or flexible work) has become the natural compromise.

In this post, we’ll explore how companies can roll out their return to office policies in a way that values both employees and business goals. We’ll also cover the workplace tech trends that can transform the office to work more efficiently. Let’s dive into:

  • What does a return to office really look like?
  • The benefits and challenges of returning to the office
  • Different return to office policies
  • 5 tips for a successful return to office strategy

What does return to office really look like?

Return to office is a movement by companies worldwide to get their employees to come back onsite after the pandemic introduced wide-scale remote work in 2020. Returning to the office isn’t the same for everyone. For many industries, they either never switched over to remote work or have already returned to the office five days a week—especially for companies within healthcare, manufacturing, or education, for example. Other industries, such as professional services and tech, have been slower in their return, but are now shifting back to onsite work. According to a Resume Builder survey, 51% of companies with office space currently require onsite work, and another 39% plan to mandate office attendance by the end of this year

The benefits and challenges of returning to the office

As with all new (or in some cases, old-but-new) policies, pros and cons inevitably follow. The reality is that there’s no one resolution that’s perfect for every company or every person out there. The good news is: you can design your return to office policies in a unique way rather than having something “traditional” to adhere to. When you can show thought and flexibility in your return to office approach, it will show employees you value them. In turn, employees will then value being back at the office.

If you’re thinking about how to deploy your return to office policy, here are some key benefits to highlight—and challenges you may want to prepare for.

Benefit #1: Better work-life balance

For some, returning to the office helps people achieve a better work-life balance by physically separating the two apart. Folks can come onsite for work. They can then leave it at the office when they go home for the day. Depending on the type of return to work policy in effect, some people with a hybrid work setup can achieve a work-life balance during work-from-home days, too. Returning to the office doesn’t mean people can’t tick off personal items while onsite. In fact, the majority of leaders (64%) do not view personal time during the workday negatively. This includes scrolling social media, running errands during the day, and leaving early or coming in late due to commitments like childcare. You’re not judged for juggling life commitments with work commitments. Managing a work-life balance is more than possible when returning to the office. Perhaps even more so than fully remote workers, who on average spend 10% longer working than those who can physically sign off for the day when they leave the office.

Benefit #2: Employee recognition

In the same survey, 95% of leaders admit that they recognize onsite employee contributions more than those who work from home. That includes employees who come in frequently to the office, sit and work near their managers, and lead onsite presentations. In other words, the more face-to-face time you get in front of executives, the more they notice you and your work, which can lead to great benefits like career development.

Benefit #3: Provides opportunity for onsite collaboration

Returning to the office also means returning to coworkers and sharing the same physical space with them. This is hugely beneficial for collaboration and employee engagement, which is essential for developing team camaraderie, work relationships, and a sense of workplace community. According to a survey by Harvard Business Review, 95% of people say face-to-face meetings are key to successful long-term relationships in the workplace. What’s more, greater engagement and collaboration also helps to drive business output and unlocks potential for growth.

Benefit #4: Drives productivity and company culture

In today’s world of technology, it’s easier than ever to communicate through a screen, collaborate in real time on a document, or quickly find something in a folder. Technology has powered remote work and continues to do so. Yet, there’s still no replacement for face-to-face interaction. The reality is that when folks get together, they can brainstorm, ask questions on the fly, and collaborate in more organic ways. According to a 2023 Stanford study of remote work, fully remote employees are 10% less productive than those working on company premises. Another study found that in-person teams generate 15% to 20% more ideas than virtual ones.

Challenge #1: The commute

According to recent research, remote workers have saved 60 millions hours by cutting their commute to and from work. Commuting is a part of organizations’ return to office that is unavoidable. Although organizations have their hands tied when it comes to removing the need to commute, there are a lot of things they can do to make it easier for folks who need to travel. Here are just a few:

  • Offer flexibility when it comes to times of arrival and departure. That way, people can miss rush hour traffic.
  • Provide commuting stipends to help with the added cost of returning to the office.
  • Earn their commutes with other onsite benefits, like catered lunches, snacks, and other amenities.
  • Organize shuttle buses to help those without cars get to work more easily.
  • Regularly survey employees to see what days work best for commuting to the office. If Mondays are better because the roads and trains are quieter, consider baking this into your return to office policy.

Challenge #2: Exposure to illnesses

Any change in environment can disrupt established workflows and focus. Employees who were productive at home may find the office setting more distracting or less conducive to deep work. To minimize distractions, you can make sure your office layout has ample spaces for collaborative meetings and quiet zones for heads-down work. Another option is to encourage your departments to schedule meeting-free days to allow for focused work and cater to different productivity styles.

Different return to office policies

There’s no one way to return to the office, which means there’s no right way to return to the office either. Your return to office policy needs to work for the type of organization you have. Here are three types of return to office policies you could implement.

  1. Optional return to the office. This policy offers flexibility by giving people the choice to return to the office. This might include how often they go in, for how long, and on what days. You don’t have to give options across all areas. For example, you might offer folks the option to choose what days they come onsite but make working hours mandatory. Whatever you choose, offering people some flexibility maximizes the chance of making employees happy as they plan their work schedules around how they work best.
  2. Hybrid return to the office. The most popular policy. Hybrid work allows organizations to request their employees to return to the office for part of the week, giving them the flexibility to WFH while also reaping the benefits of having folks onsite together again. Some organizations will differ in the level of flexibility they want to offer in their hybrid work policy. Some employees will have the choice to choose what days they return onsite, while others might be mandated to come in on Mondays and Wednesdays for example.
  3. Full-time return to the office. This is a policy with little to no flexibility for your employees. For some organizations, returning to the office full-time makes the most sense. This might be for organizations in manufacturing or biopharma, where folks need to access onsite equipment for the job. You may also want to choose this return to office route if you’re struggling to get folks back onsite, or if you want to ensure everyone is in the office together for at least one day a week.

Remember, patience is key when it comes to executing your return to office strategy. Change is never going to fly high on the popularity ladder immediately. But as more and more folks return to the office, others will want to also feel included and be a part of discussions happening onsite. In short, your return to office policy ends up driving itself when implemented in the right way—with flexibility and thought for employees baked in.

5 tips for a successful return to office strategy

So far we’ve covered the pros and cons of returning to the office and the different return to office policies out there. Now, let’s put that information into practice and go over five different ways you can action a successful return to office strategy.

1. Use the right workplace tech

If you want people to return to the office, then you’re going to need to make the office work for your employees. In a recent survey, 34% of employees considered slow or outdated technology as a dealbreaker when returning to the office. Consider what workplace technology is out there to automate tedious tasks, manage workflows, and connect systems and software to create a seamless workplace experience. Here’s a couple of examples of workplace technology that will help set your office up for return to office success.

  • Room booking software. What’s the point of returning to the office when a simple Zoom link is replaced by a frustrating game of finding an available room to talk with your colleagues? Ensure meeting rooms are powered by easy-to-use technology, making them easy to book in advance, on the fly, or as an impromptu meeting.
  • Desk booking technology. If you’re not assigning desks, you can give folks the option to choose where then want to sit when they return to the office. Bookable on a daily basis or even hourly, hot desks allow people to reserve a spot using their phone next to coworkers, in quiet spots, or next to their manager.
  • Hybrid work scheduling. In order to make any policy stick, you need a scheduling tool to help employees and leaders manage their calendar, including what days they want to come onsite. A scheduling tool allows employees to see who’s in the office, book their own days onsite accordingly, and even invite others to join them on specific days.

2. Be thoughtful in your approach

Employees who don’t feel valued or recognized are five times more likely to work elsewhere than those who do. It always pays to think about your employees when implementing any change at work—especially a return to office change. Consider sending out an employee survey to understand how your employees think about returning to the office. What are their concerns? Once you know where they stand, you can begin to think about solutions to offer alongside your return to office policy. For example, if many of your employees share concerns about leaving their pets at home, you could make your office dog-friendly or offer a pet-care stipend.

3. Design your office with intent

When you’re implementing a return to office policy, it’s worth starting with a simple question: “Would people want to return to this office?” If your office has a few permanent desks, not enough meeting rooms, and limited amenities—then chances are the answer is no. Think about your workplace the same way you would think about your home. Is it welcoming? Friendly? Warm? Things like wall color and meeting room design go a long way in making folks feel comfortable returning to the office. Also ensuring different areas around the office provide different vibes can be important, too. Couches, TVs, and coffee tables allow people to get comfortable and shift perspective away from their desk. High bench tops near the kitchen offer people the opportunity to meet on the fly with coworkers.

4. Start slow, go steady

If you go from two years of remote work to a mandatory five-day in-office requirement, chances are you’re going to make people unhappy and risk losing some talent. After all, not everyone likes change or embraces it quickly. Once you’ve surveyed your employees and understood their concerns, consider starting your return to office policy off slowly. For example, if the goal is to get everybody into the office three days a week, start off with asking folks back for two days and then upping it a few months later when people are used to it.

5. Flexibility is always key

Flexible work is now a common workplace perk. It’s a working style that became the norm during the pandemic, and now it’s here to stay for many industries. When you implement your return to office policy, giving folks some room to work in their own way will pay dividends to your organization in the long run. That doesn’t mean you have to offer employees total choice around their working week. But offering flexibility on things like childcare, pets, or running personal errands during the day will allow people to return to the office with ease.

The return to office is already here. Use the tips in this post to ensure your return to office policy works for both your business and your people. Interested in learning how to ensure RTO success? Read about the latest Envoy features to help you get the data you need to make more informed workplace decisions.

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AUTHOR BIO
Senior Content Marketing Manager Alumni

Amy is a content creator and storyteller at Envoy, where she helps workplace leaders build a workplace their people will love. Outside of work, you can usually find Amy exploring new places, planning her next trip, or enjoying a coffee and croissant in her favorite cafe.

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