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How to overcome employee resistance to returning to the office

A recent EY survey revealed that more than half of employees globally (54% to be precise) said they would quit their jobs if they weren’t provided with, or able to maintain, flexible working once the Covid pandemic is over. This is despite 76% of that same group claiming to be satisfied with their jobs. This underlines the current strength of feeling about having flexibility in our work lives. Covid, and the changes to our work lives that it enforced, has opened a can of worms, it would seem. Or, if that can was already open, Covid shook it violently and sent those worms flying everywhere…

To reinforce this, almost half of respondents claimed that their organisational culture has changed for the better over the course of the pandemic!

It’s safe to say that a lot of workers assumed that flexible working was here to stay for them if they wanted it. Newspaper reports from late last year show that some have even relocated because of this. And yet, many employers are now pushing back and informing their employees that they will be expected back in the office for at least some of the working week. These include Apple, Morgan Stanley and The Washingtonian magazine, where employees walked off the job when told they were expected to return to the office full time.

This huge discrepancy between many employees’ wishes and their employees’ expectations could be a serious risk to any company. Many businesses that have already suffered at the (un-sanitised) hands of Covid can ill afford tumbling morale, rocketing staff turnover, and/or stagnant productivity.

So how can we aim to overcome this resistance to returning to the office?

Address the objections head-on

More than ¾ of employees experience “cultural tensions” during times of significant change. It’s human nature to feel cautious or anxious around change and these emotions are amplified further when the change is in the opposite direction to that that is desired.

Unsurprisingly, the solution to this lies in communication. Think about how you are best reassured when feeling anxious or concerned.

McKinsey reports that:

"Communication, specifically, contributes the most to a transformation’s success. At companies where senior managers communicate openly and across the organisation about the transformation’s progress, respondents are 8 times as likely to report a successful transformation as those who say this communication doesn’t happen."

Interestingly, this stat’ increases even further, to over 12 times the success, for enterprise-wide transformations when senior managers communicate continually.

Asking your employees about their main reasons for not wanting to return to site and having some carefully considered and standardised business-wide responses is key. Use a tool that offers anonymity for the ultimate expression of transparency and trust. Questions, concerns, and objections can then be grouped, collated, and answered. The same tool can also be used to run live polls.

To use a real-world example that I am currently involved with, if a recurring theme for reluctance is “feeling at risk from Covid if I return to site”, the official response may be to detail all of the precautions that have been introduced on-site to protect the health of employees and to reassure with the promise of ongoing testing and reporting. A quick survey can then be run to ask employees what extra precautions they would like to see.

Keep the comms personal

I’ve written a few times now about the power of video in comms. There is simply no getting away from the fact that, just as we are bombarded with moving pictures in our everyday lives, we are expecting more of this in our professional comms. Short video messages are considerably more engaging than even the best of written pieces and, crucially for a topic like this, can be more reassuring and credible. A short clip of a senior leader talking about what is being done on-site, and how these measures are perhaps addressing their personal concerns, will be far more authentic and comforting than an e-mail, staff newsletter, or static post on Workplace or Slack.

Lead by example

Regardless of whether (or even despite the fact that) your leadership team tend to work more flexibly or remotely, having them back on-site should both reassure and encourage others to follow. They should be setting the example and shouting about the benefits and personal advantages of being back in person.


Depending on the size of your organisation and the scale of the return-to-site project, a comms strategy to outline the plan and support with detail may be hugely beneficial. As well as considering the business responses to your employees’ concerns, agreeing specific comms tactics and tools to reinforce these responses (such as the precautions survey mentioned above) can also be highly effective.

To take another highly likely example, if “my work/life balance will suffer” is a recurring theme, the business response may be that flexibility will be offered where appropriate to minimise commuting times and facilitate time off for other important commitments. Strategies to reinforce this may include a dedicated channel to host chat and facilitate collaboration for such times, frequent updates and FAQs to keep everyone informed of developments, and pulse surveys to measure the mood (and show that people are listening).

Make it a celebration

Being able to return to sites is, of course, a reason to be grateful. It’s a sign that our governments and scientists believe the risks to us from the virus are diminishing. We just need all of our people to see and feel the benefits to them of returning. Focus on the engagement, the collaboration, the social element. Shout about the changes that have been made since they left the office. Inform, engage and motivate. And then do that some more. Try to make this a milestone that is universally celebrated across your teams. But that has to start with identifying, addressing and, as far as is possible, resolving the concerns of your people.


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