The Great Return: Making It Work for Everyone
Even though multiple COVID variants appear to be causing regular spikes in test positivity rates across the country, the long-awaited return to the office is happening in full force. Companies are finally opening their doors for their employees after many delays over the last year. This has triggered a trend aptly named the “Great Return,” but are business leaders and employees on the same page?
Who Is Leading the Great Return?
According to Microsoft, 50% of business leaders already require or plan to require full-time in-person work within the next year. Meanwhile, Google employees were required to go back to the office in April in a hybrid work arrangement, spending at least three days in the office per week. They were not the only Fortune 100 company to return. Some, like Goldman Sachs, Walmart, and Bank of America, are requiring their corporate employees to be in the office full-time. Others have adopted the hybrid approach, including Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, State Farm, and many more.
Small and mid-sized businesses are also heading back to the office. These numbers are harder to track, but Kastle, an office space security technology provider, has been monitoring anonymized data on office building key fobs and key cards, providing a “Back to Work Barometer.” Through this activity, Kastle reports a national average of 38% occupancy across 2,600 office buildings in 138 U.S. cities. This number jumps to 43.2% when looking at the ten hottest metro areas in the U.S.
What Do Employees Want?
In general, many employees seem to prefer remote work. Data from LinkedIn reinforces this claim: Of all the jobs posted on LinkedIn in February 2022, 20% were remote positions, and yet these postings received 50% of all applications.
What is driving this preference for remote work? The reasons vary. Some employees do not want to be tied to their employer’s location. Microsoft reports that 38% of their survey respondents are considering relocating because they are able to work remotely at their current job.
Other employees are simply re-evaluating their work-life balance. According to Microsoft, 53% of employees—particularly parents and women—are more likely to prioritize health and wellbeing over work than they were pre-pandemic. A further 47% are more likely to prioritize family and personal life than they were pre- pandemic. This shift is part of a larger trend exacerbated by the pandemic and increased burnout, in which people in general are reprioritizing their lives and re-examining their values. Choosing to work for employers that offer remote work allows employees to meet these new priorities.
Finally, the impact of skyrocketing inflation is intensifying people’s desire to work remotely. A Bloomberg report acknowledges that rising gas prices, the cost of eating out for lunch, and even expenses like dry cleaning suits all add up, making the sudden shift to office life after two years of working from home a less appealing option. As rising prices eat up employees’ take-home pay, employers must be cognizant of the economic impact made by the pandemic. According to SHRM, 50.7% of employers have increased salaries in their organization to combat the tight labor market, another 97% of employers surveyed by Care.com have shifted their benefits packages, including childcare and retirement packages, to better accommodate their employees. However, while compensation is still a critical motivator in an employee’s choice of employer, ADP reports that 52% of workers would be willing to sacrifice as much as an 11% pay-cut in return for more flexibility or a hybrid work model. As a result, it is dubious whether salary and wage increases are always an effective response to battling attrition.
What Are Effective Return to Work Strategies?
Though a majority of workers clearly prefer remote work, or at least hybrid work, business needs play a significant role in the equation, and the C-suite must act accordingly. They must implement return to work strategies that make professionals comfortable and motivated or risk losing them to the Great Resignation.
First, it is imperative to recognize that, according to a Microsoft report, 38% of hybrid employees struggle with knowing when and why to come into the office. It is no longer a given that work happens in the office, and employers need to communicate their expectations and purpose behind their return-to-work policies accordingly. This will look different for every company, but an HBR article suggests that culture, collaboration, and shared purpose are the most beneficial reasons for returning to the office. Companies must then reinforce these reasons with clear expectations about schedules, meetings, and team activities.
In setting these expectations, leaders should acknowledge how hybrid schedules align with employees’ specific tasks, as well as their need for flexibility and downtime. Anonymized Outlook data shows positive progress in addressing downtime: fewer meetings are being scheduled on Monday mornings, Friday afternoons, and lunch hours. The number of out-of-office calendar blocks also increased by 10% in the past year, indicating that employees are taking greater advantage of paid time off. An Asana report also points out that appropriate hybrid scheduling is critical to productivity: 49% of workers view the office as a social space where they can participate in collaborative tasks. For days when fewer collaborative meetings are scheduled, work from home will likely be a better option.
Besides policies that support flexibility and wellbeing, another priority for many companies is addressing how they use their physical office spaces. For some, this looks like acquiring additional space: Computerworld reports that the amount of commercial real estate purchased in 2021 rebounded higher than pre-pandemic rates, with early 2022 purchases set to surpass last year. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is one such example; the company is expanding its office footprint, spending $1 billion on a new London campus where they can introduce greater collaboration space and reconfigure the office environment to better support employee wellbeing.
Real estate giant JLL reports that, in addition to acquiring more space, employers are being especially intentional about workplace design as they return to the office. Traditionally, private offices and workstations occupy 90% of an office, but now companies are repurposing these areas into collaborative spaces and amenities. This redesign puts the focus on culture and connection in the workplace. As McKinsey boldly states: “The cubicle farm has to go.”
Salesforce is one example of a company that has leveraged this redesign strategy. They revamped their office to focus on team spaces that promote both focused individual and collaborative work—to do this, they reduced desk space by 40%. Other companies are investing in redesigns that incorporate a mix of both “collaboration spaces” and “quiet zones” in order to boost productivity and creativity. A simple tactic some business leaders are latching onto is simply renaming spaces within the office: “studios,” “campuses,” “learning centers,” and “innovation spaces” are becoming commonplace descriptors of individual offices, conference rooms, and shared office space.Ultimately, it’s about creating spaces that make employees want to return to work. Research from Steelcase, a renowned office furniture manufacturer, reveals that when people like working from the office, they are 33% more engaged and 9% more productive.
Making the Great Return Work for Everyone
After more than two years of turbulence and uncertainty, the Great Return has the power to bring people back together—but only if employers and employees are on the same page. Examining these larger trends in the context of a company’s unique employee makeup and physical office space is a critical step in boosting performance and retention.
The key takeaway for those asking employees to return to work is that both their internal policies and workplace environments reinforce the purpose of requiring employees to be on-site. Similarly, under a hybrid work model, it is imperative that a company’s processes, tools, and workspace support employees in both scenarios. From schedules, meetings, and internal communications, to furniture, technology, and amenities, everything should align to optimize an employee’s productivity, creativity, and wellbeing.
How is your business responding to the Great Return? If you are looking to attract top talent to your company, reach out to Resource 1 today.