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The Great Return: how to make people want to go back to the office

April 7, 2022
By Mayra Coelho

After a long period of remote work, it’s time for many companies to bring their employees back into the office. The problem is: many of us have become accustomed to working from home, not having to commute every day, and having more free time. Certainly, priorities and expectations have shifted and there is a new understanding of how work can get done. The biggest mistake is to assume that the “old office” is sufficient for the “new reality”.

The past two years have highlighted and accelerated trends that were already emerging. These include a greater focus on employee well-being, mental and physical health, a greater emphasis on business purpose, increasing demand for flexibility and work-life balance, and a shift to remote work. The return to the office could be an excellent opportunity to re-evaluate the company’s values and culture and rethink the purpose of the office.

As a higher percentage of workers want to continue to work remotely, there is an urgent need to increase the attractiveness of physical offices. The office is an important part of the employee experience, and companies should seize this moment to transform the office environment to promote employee engagement and well-being, with a common goal of increasing employee attendance, retention and attracting new talent. We have selected 12 key tips to make the transition back to work more appealing:

Reorganize space: Give employees a wide range of choices and a variety of spaces, from individual workstations to collaborative spaces that encourage team interaction and creativity, so employees can work in the places that serve them best. Repurpose conference rooms, offer lounges or casual seating areas for when employees need a break from their desks. Remember that a key office differentiator is the proximity among co-workers.

Optimize usage: If the transition is gradual or the hybrid work model is maintained, consider bringing employees into the office when more face-to-face interactions are needed, such as brainstorming or teamwork and on similar days so it does not feel like an abandoned office.

Change the names of spaces: The names of buildings, floors, rooms and areas should reflect the new office approach, which may focus on collaboration, creativity and learning, for example. Terms like “learning center” or “innovation space” convey a new perspective.

Be creative: Create unusual workspaces, encourage employees to work from the cafeteria, for example, or create shared spaces where employees from different departments can collaborate. At home, many people have developed the habit of working from different ambiances, and this can be transferred to the office as well.

Encourage collaborative working: As hybrid work arrangements become more prevalent and people can do more individual work at home, employees will be more likely to come to the office to collaborate, share and co-create. Consider providing more space and resources for group collaboration and learning.

Listen to your employees: Companies need to heed the call of their employees and listen to their wants and needs. It’s important to involve employees in coming up with solutions to each of the challenges of the work environment and brainstorm ways to make the office more attractive to foster more cohesion and camaraderie.

Well-being is key: An office that promotes well-being is good for employees’ overall health and, consequently, engagement. Companies need to change their approach to well-being by prioritizing employee care and investing in overall mental, physical, emotional and relational health, just as they invest in innovation. In this sense, no one can tell you better what would make them happier and healthier than the employees themselves.

Nurture relationships: The main reasons people return to the office are to regain a sense of belonging, improve their network, and nurture relationships. Providing more spaces to meet alone or in small groups or hosting team-building activities and social activities like coffee breaks and happy hours bring employees together. Pairing employees with other colleagues, joint projects and cross-training are also ways to encourage social interactions.

Add flexibility: Consider allowing hybrid work arrangements or introducing flexible work schedules so employees have some flexibility to avoid the stress of rush hour or crowded public transportation and spend more time with their families.

Engage leaders: During the pandemic, a greater sense of connectedness emerged among people who were all in a similar situation. This closeness should also be fostered in the workplace between leaders and employees so that people feel that their leaders are attuned to their daily experiences. With this in mind, leaders should reconnect with their teams and lead by example.

Offer partnerships: It’s not just about work. There’s also a growing need for a sense of purpose. An office can be a hub for learning and expanding experiences. Smart companies are partnering with other organizations to offer various programs for their employees. Activities such as yoga or meditation, supporting social causes, community service or continuing education are some good initiatives. Even small actions like displaying artwork by emerging artists or pop-up food trucks can make the office more attractive.

Be patient and empathetic: It can take some time for employees to get used to a physical workplace again. It’s important to be empathetic and show them kindness during this process. Employees need guidance and flexibility to reduce their anxiety. Show your employees that you understand what they may be suffering and do not expect everything to be the same as it was before the pandemic.

Sources: Forbes, Inc., Harvard, Forbes