Sep 8, 2022 - Economy

How to avoid return-to-office backlash

Illustration of a woman facing an office door and a front door to a house

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The vast majority of employees, 91% according to a Gallup survey, want workspace flexibility, while most executives want to return to the office at pre-pandemic levels.

Why it matters: This disconnect is a communications issue as much as it is an HR issue, as seemingly out-of-touch executives create reputational risk.

State of play: A Conference Board study found that only 4% of organizations are requiring all workers to return to the office 40 hours per week, while fully remote options have increased six-fold.

Yes, but: Some executives are desperate to force a full return, and it's not going over well.

  • Goldman Sachs executives were called "insane" for lifting COVID protocols as a way to lure employees back, Elon Musk received backlash for telling Telsa employees to come in or quit, and The Washington Post CEO Fred Ryan has resorted to monitoring office attendance "and has weighed new measures to compel people to return to work, including threats of firings," according to The New York Times.
  • Meanwhile, AT&T, Google and Apple employees are pushing back against return mandates, contending they are happier and more productive at home.

Zoom out: The labor market remains tight, and employees will look elsewhere if flexible work is denied.

Between the lines: Remote work is no longer about dodging a virus but about re-imagining corporate culture to create a better work-life balance.

  • Pew Research found 76% of respondents prefer remote work due to personal choice, 42% cited fear of infection, 32% said child care responsibilities were keeping them home and 17% said they'd moved away from their workplace.

Hybrid workspaces are a good solution, according to a new Harvard Business School study, because they allow "for the right mix of flexibility and engagement that not only makes employees happier, but more productive and creative, resulting in higher-quality work." About 90% of companies are taking this approach.

What they're saying: Rolling out a hybrid return is like carrying a hornets' nest — you must be very deliberate, tread carefully and avoid any rash movements.

Here's how ...

  • Be intentional. There should be a reason behind your hybrid policy and data to support it.
    • Arbitrary mandates won’t bring people back in a regular cadence — you have to over-explain the why behind your policy.
  • Establish clear guidelines. If employees are expected to be in the office on specific days, spell it out and explain how these expectations will be enforced.
    • Duolingo was explicit in its approach: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are in-person, and employees are free to work remotely the other two days.
    • Using vague guidelines like “an average of half the time each quarter” only leads to more confusion.
  • Be transparent. Given the many variables, leaders must be upfront with employees about how things could shift down the road. And when they do shift, explain why.
  • Embrace it. Employees have proved they can work in a fluid way, and many prefer it.
    • The notion of 9-to-5 in an office is stale. As one employee communicator put it, “Executives need to embrace more flexibility in the workplace or exit stage left.”

The bottom line: Communicators are best positioned to bridge the gap between executive expectations and evolving employee needs, but they must work with HR to finesse messaging at the manager level.

  • Whatever your strategy, constant communication is key.
  • As Axios CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei wrote in a recent internal memo, "Communicate until you annoy yourself. A good CEO or manager should be writing to — or Zooming with — their teams at least weekly and ideally more to amplify the purpose, strategy, goals and the common pursuit."
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