What did 2021 teach us about returning to the office?

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With work from home guidance once again lifting, employers are now considering how they approach the creation of a hybrid model, mixing home and office-based working.

The prospect of a return to the office may create mixed emotions. In our experience as executive head-hunters, many business leaders want their people to return to the office at least three days per week. However, most have also recognised the benefits of improved flexibility and the knock-on effects of hybrid working on staff morale and reduced labour turnover. We are also seeing that those companies that insist on a full time return to the office are having problems recruiting and retaining staff. It seems likely that the market will ultimately serve as the regulator on how companies manage the balance between office-based and remote working.

Here, we go through some of the key learnings from last year’s return to office, and discuss key success factors for a second return in 2022.

Communication is still key

The companies that enjoyed the most success in bringing people back to the office last year were without a doubt those that communicated their plans well. If you are a line manager persuading your team to come into the office for the first time in a few months, it is imperative to treat each one as an individual and communicate with them as such.

Simon Nolan, Senior Partner at Page Executive, says: “We are advising our clients to really listen to their people and understand their unique situations and any factors that might make returning to the office more difficult for them. Perhaps one is in a high-risk group. Another might have a young family or be a carer. All these questions should influence the way you engage with them and how you broach the topic of a return to the office.”

It is also important to set reasonable expectations. Don’t just announce a date when the new system will come into effect. Instead, consider phasing in office days slowly, suggesting that your teams come in for one day per week for a several weeks, before upping this to two days per week, and so on. This will ensure that employees are able to assimilate to your vision and work in a way that feels consistent as time goes on.

Sell the benefits

You shouldn’t just assume that your people are already bought in to the idea of returning to the office. The advantages may be obvious to you, but they might not be to others, especially those who have benefitted from working remotely since the onset of the pandemic. The last thing you want is for the invitation to seem like a command. Instead, ensure that your people are happy to return to the office by highlighting the benefits they will enjoy by doing so.

First and foremost, we would recommend that you retain some form of hybrid working, and reassure people that they will still have the associated perks. Nicola Wensley, Partner at Page Executive, comments: “Most workers have really enjoyed the flexibility of hybrid and remote working over the past couple of years. They have saved time on commuting, and been able to take care of certain domestic tasks during the days and spend more time with their families. It’s not about taking those benefits away – it’s about offering the additional benefits of a physical collaboration space.”

In a post-Covid world, an office should be more than a location for individuals to work as individuals. Think about ways to reformat and reconfigure your office to facilitate cooperation: this could mean creating informal breakout areas, establishing a culture of teamwork, or enabling a stronger social side to the office.

Make sure you’re ‘all in it together’

A feeling of unity, shared purpose and fairness is essential for a business to function optimally – and this extends to discussions around remote working. However, many people work in industries where certain roles cannot be performed remotely. These include retail, logistics, manufacturing, property and construction, and many other sectors based around physical processes or sites.

This creates an interesting dynamic for corporate leaders when it comes to maintaining morale and team spirit. For instance, if you run a supermarket chain with tens of thousands of workers, all of whom attend physical workplaces every day, what impression does it create to allow head office employees a far higher degree of flexibility than those on the shop floor? Many of the business leaders we work with who are in this position are keen to avoid the appearance of a ‘two-tier system’.

This makes it all the more important to ensure that those employees whose roles could be performed from home understand the value of the office, and are genuinely bought into the return. For some businesses, the morale of a large part of the workforce could be significantly affected by the way the return to office is handled.

Make returning to the office exciting

In 2021, workers across the country discovered the perfect balance that hybrid working can offer, and many were disappointed to lose this in Q4 of 2021. When offices reopen in 2022, organisations will have the opportunity to offer that balance to their employees once again.

People are social animals, and the reintroduction of the office means the re-establishment of the camaraderie which is so easily lost with totally remote working. Once in the office again, many people enjoy the opportunity to physically meet, work, and socialise with people who they may have only met virtually until now.

If handled well, the process can absolutely feel exciting. After all, the novelty of remote working is largely gone – no longer the ‘new normal’ but the ‘old normal’. Coming into office should feel like a breath of fresh air, a chance to shake up your schedule and get rid of the ‘Teams fatigue’ that so many have experienced.
Moreover, the constant self-motivation required by remote working can take its toll, and returning to an office can effectively mitigate this. A team based together in an office will tend to motivate one another far more effectively and sustainably – this is a huge benefit of hybrid working which you should be sure to emphasise to your teams. Of course, there is a growing recognition that working remotely some of the time can really improve people’s mental health – but it is also worth remembering that the human contact associated with working in an office can provide mental health benefits too.

Simon notes: “The pandemic has spurred a lot of companies to really prioritise mental health and wellness among their workforces. This is something you should look to maintain as you bring your people back to the office. Have regular check-ins, and make sure you are getting feedback from your people. You will have the most success by making it a collaborative process designed for everyone’s benefit.”
Ultimately, the inclusion of an office space in a hybrid working model generates better work, more efficiently, and from a happier workforce. If you communicate that well, you won’t be dragging people back to the office, but opening the door to grateful co-workers.