Female employee smiling and talking to coworkers on a virtual business meeting.

Article

Change Management for an Effective Return to Office

By Tessa Lawrence, Aston Carter Director of Human Resources

In today’s rapidly evolving and competitive labor market, companies are making significant investments in hiring and retaining employees. Unfortunately, even the most robust and well-planned retention initiatives are put at risk when organizations introduce widespread change across the organization — especially when it comes to executing return to the office (RTO). With many workers hesitant to return and more likely to leave if RTO plans aren’t carefully planned and communicated, employers should take into consideration their employees’ wants and needs when planning for and implementing RTO.

According to the Accenture Future of Work Study 2021, 83% of workers want hybrid or flexible work opportunities. In response, 63% of high-growth companies are offering “productivity from anywhere” workplace models. Another 85% of employees who have the benefit of flexible work options report they plan to remain with their companies for an extended period of time. Since today’s labor market is incredibly tight, it seems that workers are in a position to expect, and even negotiate, that flexibility.

While companies that commit to rigid in-office schedules risk losing top performers and narrowing already lean candidate networks, fully remote engagements can bring their own challenges related to company culture, employee engagement and workplace relationships. When it comes to restructuring a workplace model, employers should therefore strike a balance between what candidates want and what’s best for the company overall. It’s equally important that organizations keep clear communication top of mind when shaping messaging to employees around decisions or desired actions.

Goal Setting

When companies consider returning to the office, it shouldn’t be an attempt to return to the status quo. Instead, leaders should consider it an opportunity to reevaluate what a well-functioning workplace looks like by unifying productivity with flexibility — while emphasizing a healthy culture. An organization can achieve this by tapping into their company’s values and goals to underpin RTO execution and communication plans.

RTO goals can include both talent acquisition/retention objectives, and performance initiatives. However, organizations shouldn’t tie flexible work opportunities directly to performance. Working from home shouldn’t be wielded as a form of reward and punishment. If employees aren’t performing, supervisors shouldn’t assume it’s because they’re working remotely.

Instead, employers should carefully evaluate where employees are falling short and strategize how to fill any gaps through a multifaceted approach. A performance improvement plan could involve bringing employees into the office more often, but strategic goals for doing so (such as increased mentorship opportunities and in-person collaboration) should be built into returning to the office. Another beneficial goal for managers, directors and executives to consider is becoming more agile in leading both in person and remotely. Great leaders will learn how to hold people accountable and drive consistent performance — regardless of where employees are located.

Company goals and RTO objectives should be aligned, but strictly tying performance metrics to remote work opportunities could create imbalance in a company’s workforce by implying they don’t trust their people. While high-level performance goals can certainly be considered, they should be paired with initiatives such as employee engagement, company culture and work/life balance to form a well-structured cornerstone of a company’s RTO goals.

Implementation

When implementing an effective RTO plan, communication, empathy and flexibility are key pillars. Organizations should launch their communication plan to employees well in advance of their RTO date and be clear about expectations, protocols, and health and safety initiatives. Through that communication, employees should be made aware of how to address any issues and what resources and wellness programs are available to support the transition.

It’s also critical that leadership teams are on board with the established plan and that they’re unified in cascading communications and providing any needed support to their teams. Leveraging consistent messaging across the organization around timelines, expectations and other important details will help minimize confusion, promote transparency and build unity across a company’s workforce.

Employers that buffer their communication with understanding and empathy will also go a long way. Many employees are concerned about health and safety, childcare and work/life balance, so emotions could run high if RTO plans are communicated abruptly, harshly or in a tone-deaf manner. When an employer uses their communication to help clarify the organization’s goals and purposes behind returning to the office, it will help employees navigate through the emotions and stress of uphauling their established remote work cadence.

After working remotely for an extended period of time, returning to the office will be a big adjustment for employees. Adding a commute into the workday will require employees to start and end the day later, potentially interfering with newly established circadian rhythms born from the pandemic. Learning new office protocols and even social norms is another change, so employers should consider asking their employees to work from the office just a couple of days a week (at least starting out).

Employers should also consider providing as much flexibility as possible by allowing employees to choose which days they prefer to come in. This will allow employees to ease into returning to the office, which will greatly help them adjust and feel supported.

Culture Building

Although companies should remain aware of the risk of employee attrition when executing an RTO plan, returning to the office provides an opportunity for leaders to reignite their company culture with core values. Feelings of reservation and fear about how employees might react are common among many leaders involved in planning RTO.

However, there are many positives in returning to the office that companies should look forward to. While some employees are skeptical and genuinely prefer working from home, others are tired of working in isolation and are looking forward to being in person with colleagues. Employers can foster these feelings of excitement by holding a day of celebration to commemorate the reunion and remind employees that they’re valued.

While RTO plans are never executed flawlessly, when companies offer systems of support, understanding and flexibility, employees are more receptive to the benefits of working from the office. That includes collaboration, culture building and opportunities for developing new and deeper relationships with leaders, colleagues and customers.

This article was taken from an excerpt of Aston Carter’s latest white paper, The Labor Market Paradox of 2021 and What Employers Can Do About It and was featured on HRO Today.