By Indeed Editorial Team
The return-to-office tug-of-war has been dragging on for three years, and as vacation season comes to a close, it’s likely to heat up once again. Major employers such as Disney, Starbucks, Google, Apple, and Amazon have called employees back into the office at least three to four days per week, with Meta, Lyft, and others set to follow in September. Even Zoom, a company inextricably linked to the pandemic-era shift to remote work, has now opted for a structured hybrid approach.
Company leaders say they want employees back in person to boost collaboration and productivity — but they’re meeting resistance from workers who are reluctant to give up the freedom and flexibility of remote work.
In the US, Starbucks employees signed an open letter protesting the company’s return-to-office mandate; when Amazon announced its plans, workers started a petition that garnered 30,000 signatures. Other employers have resorted to ultimatums and bribery to boost worker attendance, with Google threatening poor performance reviews and Salesforce offering to match days spent in the office with charitable donations. When asked what they would do if their employer mandated a return to the office, 31% of Canadian workers said they would go but would start looking for a new job.
“The reality is, the pandemic forever changed the way we work,” says Priscilla Koranteng, Indeed’s Chief People Officer. “The most successful organizations today are embracing flexibility, and not just implementing return-to-office policies — but also giving people a place that they want to return to.”
Here are four strategies for getting return-to-office buy-in from employees.
1. Embrace hybrid work
There’s no denying it: Hybrid work is emerging as the clear winner for return-to-office policies. According to Robert Half's The State of Remote Work 2023 report, 85% of workers are interested in hybrid or remote positions. A survey of Canadian companies has also found that 62% of employers have implemented hybrid work models. The same survey found that 34% of employers require their employees to work on site full time, while just 4% have fully remote models.
Going hybrid offers many benefits for companies and their workers, including:
Flexibility is a key driver of work wellbeing. Research shows that employees who choose to work from home exhibit a 13% boost in performance, higher job satisfaction, and lower attrition, while new mothers who work at home are less likely to experience depression. In a recent survey by IWG, workers in Canada listed the top benefits of hybrid work arrangements as increased productivity, more time to relax, and increased enjoyment of their work, as well as improved sleep, reduced stress, more time to spend with family and friends, and more time to focus on mental health.
Workers say they’re more efficient when working from home, but managers’ concerns about productivity may not be entirely unfounded: Researchers at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research say productivity is about 10% to 20% lower in fully remote working arrangements compared with fully in-person ones. However, they found hybrid work makes no difference in productivity — apart from potentially offering a “mildly positive impact on performance.”
Recruiting and hiring
Hybrid work policies are also a competitive recruiting tool in the ongoing tight labour market. In a Scoop Technologies Inc. survey of around 3,600 companies, those with flexible work options — including remote, electively remote, and hybrid — hired more than two times faster than fully in-office organizations. Adopting a hybrid-first approach to work has enabled the company Autodesk to increase the number of job applications by 58%, including an 82% boost in female-identifying candidates and a 45% increase in candidates from underrepresented groups.
As you create or solidify your hybrid work policies, consider what will strike the ideal balance between productivity and work wellbeing while still offering enough flexibility to give you the competitive edge for talent. Though there are many types of models, many companies are moving toward a structured hybrid approach, generally requiring workers to come in two to three days per week between Tuesday and Thursday.
2. Reimagine your workspace
With structured hybrid arrangements, your space may be a virtual ghost town on Mondays and Fridays but experience high traffic on other days. How will you reimagine your office to accommodate new ways of working?
Indeed, which had shifted to fully remote work during the pandemic, began requiring a portion of its workforce to return to the office at least two days per week in the summer of 2023. The new Indeed Tower global co-headquarters in Austin, Texas, is not only a thoughtfully designed space that encourages community and collaboration but also a flexible, hybrid-first work environment that’s versatile and customizable. It offers a “coffee-shop” workplace experience and promotes hybrid collaboration through features such as wireless-first offerings, so workers are free to easily move about the office, as well as updated Zoom technology and movable digital whiteboards. In addition, half of the conference rooms feature flexible partitions, allowing the architecture of the office to adapt as usage needs change.
3. Double down on equity, inclusivity, and belonging
Though the return-to-office discussion often centres on issues of productivity and work-life balance, these mandates also have an outsized impact on women and historically marginalized groups. For example:
- Women: Returning to the office places a significant burden on women, who traditionally bear the majority of childcare responsibilities, in addition to the demands of new motherhood. In Canada, women are more likely than men to prefer to work from home some or all of the time (58% vs 45%).
- Workers with disabilities: Remote-work options open up opportunities to those with accessibility needs that may not be met in a physical office environment.
- LGBTQ+ workers: In an Indeed survey of LGBTQ+ workers in the US, 76% of those working in a hybrid or remote capacity said they feel safer expressing themselves from home versus working in the office.
If you’re asking workers in these groups to return to the physical office, are you also providing them with the support they need to succeed, maintain work wellbeing, and feel like they belong in your organization?
This might mean strengthening or expanding the focus of your DEIB program, upgrading accessibility accommodations in your office, or bolstering Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Business Resource Groups (BRGs) that provide employees with opportunities to connect with peers and make their voices heard. Consider enhancing your family-friendly benefits as well, including offering paid parental leave, flexible work hours, and resources for working parents, such as services that assist with finding quality backup childcare options.
To guide your efforts, conduct employee engagement surveys and focus groups with workers from underrepresented communities to see where you can improve equity, inclusivity, and belonging and act upon your findings.
4. Cultivate connection
For Indeed CEO Chris Hyams, the dialogue around the return to the office is a classic case of the manager–worker divide — but not in the way you might think. “Managers want people to go back to work because they think they’ll be more productive, but employees actually want to go back for connection,” he recently shared in Fast Company.
No one likes commuting to an office only to sit in Zoom meetings all day, so it’s imperative to intentionally create opportunities for employees to forge bonds, network, and connect with one another face to face. As part of a structured hybrid approach, try choosing “anchor days” — usually Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — to draw employees back into the office at the same time. Use these common touchpoints to plan company-wide meetings, training opportunities, and other group activities. Encourage managers to hold their team meetings, one-on-ones, and team lunches on these days as well. The opportunity to make meaningful connections will help ensure that employees value their time spent together in person.
At the end of the day, nothing matches the value of human connection.