Want Employees Back in the Office? What Leaders Are (Still!) Getting Wrong About This Ask

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For all the reports of loneliness and isolation experienced during the pandemic, it’s no secret that a significant portion of the workforce became habituated to working from home. Many found the increased time autonomy, the lack of commute and the flexibility refreshing, if not freeing.

Well, the party’s over.

Last year, people began returning to the office en masse. According to Build Remote, in 2022 approximately 34% — twice that of the previous year — of all Fortune 100 companies requested their employees return to the office. For those still working at home, the news gets worse; Resume Builder reports that 90% of companies plan to be back at the office by the end of 2024.

This presents its own set of problems. For business leaders, one of these is the question of how to ask employees to come back. But armed with the knowledge of what others have done right (or drastically wrong), it would behoove them to think about how they approach communications on this.

As a business leader who supports other business leaders with how they communicate with stakeholders, I’ve seen firsthand how taking a compassionate approach to communicating policy changes can further the employer-employee bond, energize a workforce and take the edge off challenging conversations. Yes, including the RTO ask.

Here are some tips to get it right.

Related: 3 Mistakes You May Not Realize You’re Making When Bringing Employees Back to the Office

Dig deep

It sounds simple, but before asking their employees to return to the office, leaders should ask themselves: Why do I really want this?

Is it because returning to a work environment is what everyone else is doing? Or because it seems like the correct course to take? Or is it even due to control issues? If your motivations are rooted in a scarcity rather than an abundance mindset or impulsive feelings, it’s worth taking a second look and ensuring they aren’t informing strategy that could do more damage in the long term.

One of many dangers of not thinking through your own motivations is coming across as unclear and out of touch. In a virtual town hall recorded in April, Clearlink CEO James Clarke awkwardly praised an employee for selling the family dog after hearing about the company’s RTO policy and questioned whether single mothers or primary caregivers could really work full-time jobs.

This was a textbook example of somebody who was making an ask from a lens of control and operational scarcity, who was not clear on the data, and who was throwing out confusing and alienating concepts to justify the return to work. Not only was this ineffective, but his communication blunder led to widespread negative coverage for his organization and his leadership.

Look to the data

While personal reflection is a good starting point, one of the benefits of no longer being in the immediate post-pandemic period is that leaders now have access to some telling numbers around barriers and motivations for returning to a physical workplace.

According to a 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index, the main attraction of coming back is the social aspect: 85% of employees say they would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds, while 84% indicated they would return to work for the chance to socialize with coworkers.

This is gold for business leaders. CEOs and company heads who emphasize human connection and collaboration in the workplace are more likely to receive buy-in. No matter how comfortable and convenient your employees’ home offices might be, they may still miss the water-cooler chitchat about the latest hit streaming show and the sense of mission that comes from being around like-minded people. Simply put: Framing an office come-back of any duration as an aspirational opportunity for collaboration and connectedness vs. a punitive measure rooted in control is a great place to start.

Related: We Know Return to Office Mandates Backfire — So Why Are Tech Giants Like Amazon, IBM and Zoom Reinstating This Outdated Policy?

Use humility and empathy as a North Star

Words like empathy and humility get thrown around a lot, but they do matter here. If you want people to show up for you, show up for them.

Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. What kind of challenges do they face? Arm yourself with the information before you make that choice and that call. If you have a people team or access to HR data, leverage those things to get more insight into what is keeping employees at home and what would incentivize them to come back. Figure out their barriers to entry. Do they need childcare options? A less costly commute?

Also keep in mind that the blending of home and work life during the pandemic fundamentally may have changed things for people, particularly for caregivers. Acknowledging and accounting for the added stress that a return to the office may bring reassures them that the reality of their experience isn’t being erased by the renewed physical barrier between home and work.

Commit to being present, too

Finally, business leaders have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I’ve heard many stories of CEOs asking employees to come back, while rarely coming in themselves. Not a good look.

Obviously, as a leader with travel and business obligations, you’re not going to be able to be in the office 24/7 — and you wouldn’t have been before this situation, either. But it is important that, especially in those early days of asking people to come back in, you are intentional about being present, making your face known (and seen) and demonstrating that enthusiasm that you’re asking others to bring.

Related: 3 Simple Ways to Motivate a Remote Workforce

That means everything from welcoming people back personally to showing your face around the office to, when possible, attending town halls and meetings in person. And it means continuing to ensure that whatever policy you have instituted is still working. Keeping those lines of communication open and responding to changes as they come up are ways that leaders can continue to show that this is a journey for them, too.

Growing pains — or in this case, returning pains — are inevitable after a paradigm-shifting event like the pandemic. But by being clear and intentional in your communications, embracing empathy and leveraging data, your RTO ask might actually energize and inspire your workers.

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