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Employees are resisting in-office policies. Here’s how executives can guide them back in.


how to get employees back to the office
Explore key ways to incentivize employees to return to a hybrid or in-person work environment with social impact experiences.

Of the many societal changes catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most profound is the increased flexibility in corporate work environments.


By adopting sophisticated communication technologies such as video conferencing and instant messaging apps, companies were able to maintain productivity and connectivity among employees during mandated lockdowns and waves of viral outbreaks. From 2020 to 2023, the number of employees who worked from home increased five-fold.


Now, many companies are determined to return their employees to an in-person office location at least some of the time. According to a 2022 survey by KPMG, 65% of CEOs believe that an “ideal” work environment is entirely onsite.


However, executive preferences stand in stark contrast to those of workers: If you ask employees where they’d like to work, 94% of them would choose to work in a remote or hybrid model — where employees split the work week between home and an in-person office, reports a 2022 Gallup survey.


There's a clear discrepancy between employer and employee preferences when it comes to remote, hybrid, and in-person work. If left unaddressed, companies that force employees back to the office risk burnout, attrition, poor company culture, and more.


In this article, you’ll learn practical ways to mindfully invite employees back to the office so everyone can reap the many benefits of working together.


The sections of this article include:

Why do employees like remote and hybrid work?


An employee working from home

Since 2020, people across the globe have changed jobs, locations, and life circumstances. Remote-capable employees have built their lives around the flexibility that remote and hybrid work offers. They’ve purchased new houses. They’ve expanded families. They’ve arranged schedules around new work paradigms.


When considering a new in-office policy, it’s vital for companies to acknowledge how changing work environments may disrupt employees.


Several reasons why employees value work location flexibility include:


Reduced commuting cost and time


Research shows that from 2020-2021, 88 U.S. cities with more than 250,000 people experienced “historic population losses.” New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston had the greatest population losses, says Brookings Metro research from 2022.


Such figures are important because they indicate that some employees may not be within reasonable commuting distance to an office location, which poses an obvious challenge if your company adopts an in-person policy.

Caregiver work-life balance


Employees who are primary caregivers for children and older adults may value work location flexibility more than those who aren’t caregivers because it allows them to better balance the demands of both work and caring. For example, taking a sick child to a doctor’s appointment is far easier if you’re working from home versus at an office located an hour away because it eliminates the time needed to commute from the office to home, and then back to the office. As women are more likely to be in caregiver positions, it’s no surprise that job flexibility is more important to women than to men. According to a YouGov poll, 57% of women say flexibility is very important in a job compared with 44% of men.


Avoiding communicable sickness


In the early days of the 2020 pandemic, many offices closed due to public health concerns. In May 2023, the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared over in the United States. But waves of the virus continue to spread across the country, with colder months fueling more infections. Employees — especially those with pre-existing health conditions that could exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms — are still wary about sickness, and may wish to continue working from home to avoid the potential for exposure. (Plus, who among us hasn’t experienced fewer seasonal colds, sniffles, and sore throats once they started working from home?)


Customized setups and productivity


While some members of your team may use their location flexibility to explore new coffee shops, co-working spaces, cities, and even countries, others may enjoy their home office setup because it includes equipment designed to help them feel most comfortable and productive. Such equipment may include:

  • Large computer monitors

  • Ergonomic chairs

  • Transitional standing/sitting desks

  • Flattering lighting for video conferencing calls

  • High-def video cameras

  • External microphones

  • A quiet, distraction-free workspace

  • Speakers

What are the benefits of working in an office?


The benefits of working in an office

Despite the challenges to in-office work noted above, there are many benefits to having teams working together in person. Executives say that employees can feel more connected to each other and to their company. According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index report, nearly 70% of business decision makers cite that ensuring social connections within teams has been a moderate to major challenge due to the shift to hybrid and remote work.


Here are more top reasons why most managers and executives want their employees back in the office.


Elevated social capital


Hybrid and remote work loosens the bonds of social connections within an organization, which hinders the type of collaboration that can lead to innovation, mentorship, professional development, and cross-department communication. Researchers from MIT studied anonymized email communications to learn how remote work impacted “weak ties” — any connection between two people who have no mutual contact in the email network. Weak ties are important in organizations because they are the type of work relationships that encourage innovation and the formation of new ideas. The researchers found that remote work led to a 38% reduction in weak ties, which could possibly stifle creative thinking and novel solutions. In-person work environments can also lead to serendipitous interactions between co-workers from different teams — often referred to as “water cooler” or “lunch room” interactions. These brief interactions are examples of the essential “weak ties” within organizations.

(Possibly) improved productivity


Research measuring the productivity of in-person versus remote or hybrid work is varied. A new study published by WFH Research is bad news for fully remote workers: By using call center and email data, fully remote work was associated with an average 10-20% reduction in productivity. There are several possible reasons for lessened productivity, which range from communication to connectivity challenges.

The same study found that hybrid work, however, was associated with a neutral or positive increase in productivity. “Workers that ended up in a hybrid arrangement — neither full-time at home nor full-time at the office — sent more emails, drafted more complex emails, and had better job satisfaction,” say researchers. Data from Future Forum’s October 2022 report confirms that flexible work environments are associated with 29% higher productivity and 53% greater ability to focus than workers with no ability to shift their schedule.


Increased hybrid productivity is likely due to reduced commuting hours, which can funnel into working time, and fewer home distractions.


Lessened proximity bias


Proximity bias is defined as “how people in positions of power tend to treat workers who are physically closer to them more favorably,” according to the Harvard Business Review. For remote workers, this could mean fewer opportunities for promotion, mentorship, and assignments for important career-building projects.


Proximity bias is problematic because those who value flexible and remote work are already likely to be members of groups who are underrepresented in corporate leadership positions, such as women and under-represented employees. One recent study found that just 3% of Black knowledge workers want to return to full-time onsite work environments, compared with 21% of white knowledge workers in the U.S.


Bringing employees back to the office is a key way to reduce proximity bias. However, it’s vital that these efforts are balanced with an effective strategy to enhance your company’s diversity, equity, inclusivity, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives as well.

5 ways to guide employees back to the office


How to get employees back to the office

Have you ever downloaded an app for free, only to find out several months later that it will start charging you for a subscription? Even if you’ll receive new features within the app, paying for what you once used for free doesn’t feel great.


This is due to a phenomenon that behavioral economists call “loss aversion.” Loss aversion refers to how individuals give more weight to what they lose versus what they gain. In fact, research suggests that people give losses two-fold the weight that they give gains.


Loss aversion behavior presents a problem for employers because most remote-capable employees already have remote, hybrid, or flexible work. Attempts to force employees back to an in-person office environment will likely be perceived as a significant loss by your team — the benefits of working in-person may pale in comparison to the reduced work flexibility.


It’s why many strict back-to-office policies are met with employee resistance and criticism.


When Disney’s CEO Bob Iger mandated workers to be in the office four days per week, thousands of Disney employees signed a petition asking Iger to rethink the policy. Likewise, after the Los Angeles-based insurer Farmers Group backtracked work-from-home policies, employees flooded the company’s internal social media platform with around 2,000 angry comments, including threats to quit.


These companies aren’t alone: 80% of executives say they would have approached their company’s return-to-office strategy differently, according to a 2023 report by Envoy.


So, how do you get employees to the office in a way that both supports your team and honors their desire for flexibility?


Here are creative ways to invite your employees back to an in-person work environment.


1. Build employee connections


One of the key benefits to working within an office is that employees can forge strong relationships with their colleagues, which is a marker of high employee engagement. Corporations with highly engaged employees are more innovative, have a more positive company culture, and have fewer instances of burnout and attrition. Employees who say they have a best friend at work are more likely to be on a successful, high-performing team. However, even “weak ties” within an organization are powerful, because they expose employees to a diversity of ideas and are often composed of cross-department connections. Optimize the time your team is in the office by providing opportunities for employees to connect with one another, such as in-person volunteering activities beach cleanups, planting trees in a local park, and more

. Visit.org is helping employees return to the office with engaging social impact experiences for workers.

2. Build a culture of inclusivity and belonging


When employees feel like they belong, they’re able to bring their full selves to work, allowing them to be more engaged with their company, colleagues, and corporate community.

When rolling out a new in-office policy, it’s paramount for companies to enhance their DEIB programming. Visit.org is helping some of the world’s largest enterprises host DEIB workshops and diversity team-building experiences to help build workplace inclusion.


3. Plan fun team experiences


Incentivize employees to return to the office by cultivating a sense of FOMO (that’s Fear Of Missing Out) with fun, team-building activities that also support community members where your office is located.

Whether you participate in a cooking class to help feed food-insecure families or gather to build STEM kits for low-income students, your team can have a great time together while also making a local impact. Be sure to take lots of photos during these social impact events and post them to your company’s internal messaging platform. Employees may start to view in-office work as an opportunity to connect with their team while also participating in an exciting activity.


4. Prioritize flexibility


Nearly all subject research shows that employees want flexibility in the workplace. As companies consider post-pandemic work models, it’s vital to prioritize hybrid environments over 100% in-office policies. There are several ways employers can compromise with their workers to maintain a level of flexibility. These initiatives may include:

  • Suggest that your employees work from your office two or three days per week instead of four or five days per week.

  • Ask employees who live far from the office (and cannot commute daily) to work from the office once per month or quarterly. Be sure to schedule culture-building programming such as DEIB workshops, lunch and learns, volunteering opportunities, and team-building experiences on these days when your whole team is in the office. (This can be a great way to increase social impact experience participation, too.)

  • Provide your employees 40-50 remote working days per year to use at their leisure.

Maintaining a level of flexibility within your work environment can dull the sting of a

back-to-office policy.


5. Support caregivers


If you’re considering a back-to-the-office policy, pair this mandate with actions that support your employees who are also caregivers. Families have built their lives around workplace flexibility, and an in-office policy may not be possible for the many employees who also take care of other people or pets. Commuting may negatively impact workers who must pick up children from daycare or cook dinner for an elderly relative. Tools to support caregivers range from providing onsite daycare to monthly stipends. Recognize that back-to-office policies may be particularly challenging for women because 75% of caregivers are female in the United States.


Supporting caregivers is one way to ease the burden of commuting after over three years of hybrid and remote work.


Social impact experiences can invite employees back to the office


Inviting your employees back into the office is a top priority for many executives. At the same time, most employees value flexibility and want to remain in a remote or hybrid office environment.


Corporations can contend with their team’s wishes by focusing on fortifying their culture and building an exceptional workplace.


From fun team-building activities and workshops to hands-on volunteering opportunities, programming centered on building connections, enhancing colleague relationships, and supporting the local community can incentivize employees to return to an onsite environment.


By supporting employees through this transition and maintaining a level of workplace flexibility, employees may even start to look forward to their in-office days.


Schedule a demo to learn how Visit.org is supporting return-to-office policies for some of the largest companies in the world.


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