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Returning to the Office? Answer These Five Question First!


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When we conducted Metrigy’s Workplace Collaboration:2021-22 global research study back in January, few workplaces expressed an appetite to return to the office any time soon. Of the 476 organizations in North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia, just 12.4% of them planned to bring people back full-time, and another 9% expected at least a part-time return (half the time in the office, other half at home). The vast majority, almost 75%, said they expected to continue to work from home even after the pandemic subsided or expected that their companies would offer employees the choice of where they wanted to work.
Since we published our study, conditions in many parts of the world have improved, as COVID vaccines have proven to be safe and effective. In recent weeks, a number of companies have announced plans to bring employees back to the office — a trend that is likely to accelerate as vaccination rates increase around the globe.
Before issuing return-to-work orders, IT, facilities, and HR managers should be aware of several factors that will govern success. Here are five critical questions to answer before you implement your return to the office strategy:
  1. Why do you want to bring employees back to the office? Our research has found that the biggest drivers for returning to the office include a belief that employees are more productive when they are in the office, better able to provide customer service, better able to collaborate, and easier to manage. Beyond that, some companies, especially those operating in rural areas, often find that home network services aren’t sufficient to enable successful work from home. In some cases, management believes that employees really want to come back to the office. The reality is a bit more complicated. Remote work challenges can often be addressed through investments in collaboration and work-management applications and via training to help managers better engage with remote employees.
  2. Do employees want to come back to the office? This one is complicated. Social science research conducted by folks like Jason Dorsey, Slack’s Future Forum, PWC, and others show wide variances in attitudes toward remote and in-office work. Younger workers who are just starting their careers tend to prefer the office, as it allows them to build interpersonal and mentor relationships. Older workers often prefer working from home, where they can free up time for out-of-office activities. Attitudes toward remote work will vary by not just age but sex, race, region, and home environment. If employees are happy working remotely, forcing them back into the office is bound to have some negative consequences.
  3. Do we need everyone back all the time? If the last 15 months or so taught us anything, it’s that people can remain productive regardless of work location. Certainly, video conferencing and other remote collaborative tools can’t replace the benefits of in-person interactions. However, managers need to ask themselves if those benefits require a full-time return to the office or if a part-time/when-needed approach will be sufficient to gain the benefits of both remote and in-person working styles.
  4. What will the new office look like? About 34% of our research participants are making physical changes to their offices, including adding barriers, limiting capacity, and reducing or getting rid of open-office designs. These trends are likely to be impacted by vaccine performance. Should vaccines continue to show high rates of effectiveness against transmission and sickness, and infection rates continue to fall, companies may back off physical restructuring and allow things to return to normal.
  5. What will the desktop look like? Those returning to the office have many methods of assigning workspace, including hot-desking, assigned space, or open space. Regardless of the chosen approach, video conferencing is likely to remain a critical technology for success, necessitating a high-quality audio and video device at the desktop. Beyond that, my recent conversations with IT leaders have seen interest in either allowing employees to bring their own keyboard, mouse, and phone, or have a locker system that employees can use their own devices to avoid close physical conflict with devices that others have touched. Companies will need to set policies and make appropriate investments in voice and video devices to support both remote and in-office work.
Answering these five questions will take a bit of due diligence and potential investment in management and employee experience applications to effectively gauge worker attitudes, experiences, and happiness. Companies should also invest in management capabilities to ensure that employees have high-quality collaborative experiences regardless of location. In the end, an informed decision based on justifiable analysis that you can share with your employees will go a long way toward avoiding conflict as you formulate your return-to-office policies.