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Why You Need a "How We Work" Plan—Not a “Return to Office” Plan

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You’ve spent so much time planning to return to the office, including debating with leadership, thinking through safety protocols, and surveying employees about their needs. 

But have you stepped back and thought through why you’re planning on returning to in-person work? Or, as AirBNB CEO Brian Chesky recently put it: “If the office never existed, would we invent it?” 

Leaders want their employees to return to the office because:

  1. It's a familiar way of working. 
  2. It’s easier than figuring out a new process.
  3. It seems like the right thing to do.
  4. It’s makes collaborative work easier and more effective.
  5. It’s easier to socialize with peers and colleagues.
  6. It helps build your company culture.
  7. It eliminates the barrier of mistrust that arises with remote work.
  8. It’s already paid for!

These are all logical and rational reasons. But let’s look at it another way. What’s the biggest problem working in the office actually solves for?

Is it collaboration? 

Is it productivity? 

Is it culture?

Recent data suggests that our desire to return to in-person work is even more simple: social connection. In a study conducted by McKinsey, 44% of employees feared loss of community and connection to their colleagues, while 43% feared reduced collaboration as remote work continues.

We crave face-to-face interaction. Venting about work over a beer. Grabbing coffee with a work friend and having a walk-and-talk meeting. Reading a colleague’s body language as you present an idea. It’s not just human instinct. It’s a big part of how we once created our company culture.

What’s Really Keeping Your Employees Out of the Office? 

According to Kastle Systems, 43% of knowledge workers have returned to the office in New York City. You might think remote work is driven by employees not wanting to commute, rising gas prices, or COVID fears, but none of these factors quite explain it. 

Restaurant reservations have returned to 90% of their pre-COVID numbers, and airplane occupancy has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. If other social indicators are trending up, why are so few employees going back to the office? It’s simple. The pros of working from home outweigh the cons. 

Let’s say your commute is one hour each way, and you work 48 weeks out of the year. If you multiply 2 hours of commute time per day x 5 days per week x 48 weeks per year, that’s 480 hours each year that remote workers no longer have to spend on the road. 

Everyone values their time differently, but, at $50 an hour, that’s a $24,000 value back in your employee’s pocket, not including the actual costs of owning a vehicle or paying for public transportation.

If new collaboration software and technology can help employees work effectively from home, the social allure of the office simply won’t be enough to bring them back to full-time, in-person work. Not when there’s $24,000 worth of personal time on the line! 

Who Are Return-to-Office Plans Designed to Support?

With the data showing that the majority of employees prefer to work from home, there are still workers who simply don’t have that luxury. Either they don’t have the space for a home office, or the environment at their home does not allow them to be productive. 

This now creates two types of employees to support. Employees who can be productive working from home, and employees who need office space outside of their home to be productive. 

Organizations look at this problem and think, “we need a return-to-office plan.” Here are the 4 most common plans we see:

  1. Mandatory. All employees are back in-person everyday.
  2. Mandatory. Employees return for a specific number of days per week 
  3. Manager Decision. Managers independently decide the return-to-office policies for their teams.
  4. Remote-first. Employees can come back to the office if they want.

Each of these plans solves for one set of problems, while creating others. Let’s take a look:

  1. Mandatory. All employees back in person everyday. Out of all the other options, this plan solves for social interaction most effectively. Unfortunately, most employees would rather quit or look for a new job if this became a requirement. This is a fairly rare policy for knowledge workers.
  1. Mandatory. Employees return for a specific number of days per week. Working remotely is about flexibility, not rigidity, and companies need to understand that. If you can work from home 2 days out of the week, why not 3? Why not the entire week? While this is a common solution, it poses challenges to leaders who wish to justify hybrid work policies to their team. 
  1. Manager Decision. Managers independently decide the return-to-office policies for their teams. Of all the return-to-office plans we’ve encountered, this one creates the most challenges. Few things create animosity between teams like one team getting different benefits based on individual decisions. Imagine that your sales team is required to be in the office 5 days a week, but marketing gets to work from the beach, or your engineering team has a “come in when you want” policy. This will lead to inequity in a heartbeat. 
  1. Remote First. Employees can come back to the office if they want. While this plan makes both groups of employees happy, it presents many logistical challenges. After all, it's difficult to predict and manage the resources and technology you need to support everyone. Leaders, managers, and individual employees might even wind up coming into the office to join video conferences! 

Ultimately, the social interaction your team craves is slowly unraveling as fewer people see the value of returning to an empty office to hop on Zoom. 

Flip the Script: Change Your Return-to-Office Plan into a How-We-Work Policy

If you’re still trying to find a hybrid work policy that addresses important needs for employee experience, including social interaction with colleagues, increased flexibility, and enhanced collaboration, it’s time to flip the script.  

Instead of a “Return-to-Office” policy, you need a “How We Work” policy for a distributed workforce. This How We Work policy addresses common distributed workforce challenges in a fair and equitable way:

  1. All employees are distributed. There is no office, which means there’s no way for employees who are able to commute or work in-person to receive favoritism when it comes to work assignments or social interactions. This policy will also open up your recruitment and talent pool, so you can hire from across the country or globe.
  2. Embrace flexible options for physical workspaces. Provide employees who require office space a desk through a shared coworking service like WeWork.
  3. Schedule company-wide offsites and retreats. Ideally, even distributed teams will gather in person once a quarter or twice a year. This is a great time to plan team-building exercises or other experiential events that will help your team build trust and collaborate more effectively once they return to their home offices.

By following this policy, you will create an organization where all employees:

  • Are on a level playing field.
  • Have the equipment and resources they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Have the flexibility to work how they want.
  • Have the opportunity for deep collaboration. 
  • Have the opportunity to create meaningful connections with their peers.

In order to fully embrace your distributed workforce, you may need to re-evaluate your communication strategies, embrace new technologies, and find ways to creatively engage your team on a regular basis.

Designed with intention, however, an equitable “How We Work” plan is the best way to steer a distributed team into the future. The sooner you stop trying to enforce a “Return to Office” plan on rapidly changing employee expectations and needs, the more competitive—and successful—your company’s future approach to work will be.

Final Thoughts

Distributed teams have many benefits, including flexibility, equity, and cost savings. Give your team the tools they need to succeed in a hybrid workplace, including an employee event platform like Welcome

If your team is spread across the country or globe, you’ll need an engaging way to bring everyone together, align on your goals, celebrate wins, and build company culture. Whether you’re holding a monthly all-hands meeting or onboarding a brand new team member, Welcome has the tools you need to boost engagement, track employee sentiment scores, and deliver jaw-dropping content.

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