Companies must carefully implement, and measure, a return to office life
Employers are looking to put more butts into office seats in 2023. It reflects the push and pull over working conditions in a post-COVID business environment.
Starbucks has told corporate employees to return to the office three days a week. Disney, Apple, Tesla are among others that have implemented policies to get workers back in the office.
Change might not be bad, and even necessary, especially because “not everyone prefers to work remotely,” said Kinsey Smith, senior data analyst at Energage.
This will most likely be an issue at large companies, which invest a lot in physical locations. Smaller companies might be more flexible. Regardless of size, employers will likely curtail some freedoms workers gained during the pandemic.
For leaders, it comes down to boosting productivity and building culture. Some leaders feel that without people working in the office, elements of the workplace culture will suffer. They hope to improve culture and collaboration.
Changes will vary depending on industry. Hospitality and health care workers, for example, already are more likely to work on site. IT workers might enjoy continued flexibility.
The debate is about how to manage. Energage research shows senior leaders prefer the in-office environment compared with rank-and-file workers. Leaders are more likely to say “If it works for me, it should work for you.” They go with what they know.
The risk for companies is losing workers who might bolt if they feel job requirements no longer suit their personal needs. Long commutes and lost comforts of remote work might prompt people to flee. Decisions for workers might become more difficult if the economy sours and job opportunities wither.
“If we want to meet people where they are, there is no one-size-fits-all answer,” said Lisa Black, director of data science for Energage. “Workers need to adapt, and managers need to adapt.”
Smart companies will survey employees to understand employee preferences and to monitor whether policies are working. Key factors to watch include:
- Employee engagement: This metric is important to gauge commitment and discretionary effort.
- Cooperation: How are people, and departments, getting along?
- Communication: Does everyone feel they are in the know?
- Meetings: Are organizations making effective use of meeting time?
- Inclusion: Do people feel like they are included in key decisions?
- Listening: Are ideas being heard?
- Meaningfulness: Are people feeling like their work is important?
Whether employees stay or leave will still likely come down to factors that have mattered for the ages: Whether people feel valued, appreciated, and included. And whether they have faith in leadership and in the direction of the organization
In the post-COVID workforce, nothing is “normal” anymore. Companies don’t have to make the same choices for everyone. Companies also might be wise to focus on outcomes rather than circumstances.
So what does “good” mean? For starters, are workers meeting goals?
“Companies are struggling now knowing where employees are most productive,” said Greg Barnett, chief people scientist at Energage.
No matter what, people might express frustration with change or the lack of change.
There is room for middle ground. Organizations should consider what employees value with remote work, and incorporate those things in the office, Smith said. For example, maybe it’s a relaxed dress code or more flexible working hours.
Over time, leaders need to think about the “why” behind their decisions, how to message changes, and how to manage them.
“Companies make business decisions all the time that employees are not going to love,” Black said. “The question comes down to ‘Why are you making the decisions you make?’ “
Execution will be the difference between strengthening the business or watching people walk out the door.
“Companies need to figure that out,” Black said.
Bob Helbig is media partnerships director at Energage, a Philadelphia-based employee survey firm. Energage is The Washington Post’s survey partner for Top Workplaces.