Getting Employees to Return — and Stay — in the Office

Employees working in an open office plan

As the hybrid work model continues to evolve — with more companies like Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Salesforce, and Meta insisting on a return to the office (RTO) at least three days a week — employers need to devise strategies to not only attract and retain employees in a competitive market but to keep them in the office. Although the majority of employees prefer to work from home for a host of reasons, most firms believe that a remote workforce makes it difficult to build and maintain a corporate culture and properly mentor employees — particularly those new employees coming out of college. As a result, most employers anticipate implementing RTO by the end of 2024 (although with greater flexibility in terms of how many days they are on site), according to HR experts and conversations with our tenant clients.

group of employees chatting it up during a coffee breakOwl Labs, a company that makes 360° video conferencing devices, found in its annual employee survey of over 2,000 workers that most (69%) believe that their company only requires them to work from the office because of “traditional work expectations.” As a result, there’s an evolving trend called “coffee badging,” where an employee shows up at the office in the morning, grabs a cup of coffee, hits the water cooler, and engages with co-workers just long enough to be seen. They then slip out and work remotely for the rest of the day. It’s essentially a way of thumbing their nose at the policy while still complying with the mandate. If that sounds like outlier behavior, it isn’t. A stunning 58% of survey respondents said they had engaged in the practice.

Employees Willing to Compromise

casually dressed beautiful young businesswoman standing with crossed arms and smiling at camera in officeDespite the reluctance of many employees to comply with these mandates, 94% of workers say they could be convinced to come back to the office if their employers would be willing to make some concessions that would make for a better work environment. Topping that list at 72% is a flexible dress code, with 24% adding they could be lured back to the office if they could wear any clothing or styles they choose. Surprisingly, about 25% said they would even take a pay cut for a relaxed or eliminated dress code.

Another significant issue for employees is the stress, time, and cost of commuting. According to the survey, workers spent an average of 31 minutes per day commuting each way and spent an extra $51 per day on the days they went into the office (parking, gas/transportation, lunch, etc.) versus working from home. More than 38% said they would be more likely to go to the office if their companies paid for their commuting costs. Other benefits that would bring employees back to the office are access to daycare, greater privacy at the office, knowing when other employees will be there, and free or subsidized food and beverages.

The Stand Off

Employees and employers can be at opposite ends of the spectrum regarding RTO policies, and both can make strong cases for their stances. As previously stated, employers want to be able to build a corporate culture and a brand identity. They also want to have more seasoned professionals nurture and provide feedback to less-experienced employees to help them develop as professionals. Employees, having experienced the benefits of working from home during the pandemic and beyond, know that they can be equally productive with far less stress brought on by lengthy commutes and challenging office dynamics. an image strip of reasons to return to work - work-life balance, volunteer events, office socials, mentoringBut remote work can also come with a hidden cost for those working remotely, as the practice may keep them from rising in the ranks. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” While the office model may be changing, the mindset of senior leadership can be behind the learning curve. KPMG conducted a global survey of 1,325 CEOs and found that 87% said they were more likely to give raises and promotions to those who come to the office over those who work remotely.

Some employers have been proactive in their approaches to creating a productive hybrid work environment. In conversations with our clients, these common themes have emerged in achieving those goals.

Find a Flexible Work Model That Benefits Employers and Employees: Many employees were able to achieve a better work-life balance by working remotely. Acknowledging that and providing real flexibility in the balance between in-person and remote work instead of adhering to rigid schedules reduces stress and improves productivity.

Develop a Social Component in the Workplace: Although most employees say they are more productive working remotely, the social connections a healthy workplace provides are invaluable. Programming events like “Team Days” at local non-profits and interactive social events can foster a sense of community and belonging among employees.

Mentoring and Training: As employees transition back to the office from remote work, mentoring and training opportunities that will support employees’ professional development and growth can help companies attract and retain talent.

Developing an RTO Strategy

To create an RTO policy that will benefit both employers and employees — thus ensuring a more productive work environment — the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has provided some guidelines for firms that have or are planning a mandated return to work. Here are summaries of a couple of the suggestions:

Define the Reasons for Returning to the Office: It may not be easy to convince employees who have been productive while working remotely that there is a benefit to returning to the office. Using internal data to tie the in-office requirement to business objectives and making a case for the benefits of collaboration — particularly for projects that require creative thought — are far better motivators than enforcing policy for policy’s sake.

Conduct a Risk Assessment: SHRM cautions that instituting an RTO policy without considering the repercussions could have unexpected consequences — such as mass resignations or union organizing. There are also potential legal issues that could prove to be problematic. Employers should conduct a thorough analysis of possible outcomes and consider how the policy could affect the morale of the current employees as well as the company’s ability to recruit talent.

Employees and employers find themselves in a tug-of-war over returning to the office. Developing a workable RTO strategy that serves both groups can lead to a less stressful and more productive workplace.