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How to persuade your employees back to the office (the nice way!)

There are still plenty of news articles flying around about the battle between employers who want their people back in their buildings and their employees who grew to love their remote working ways during lockdowns. Whilst some companies have settled comfortably in to blended working and new flexibilities, others, if reports are to be believed, are at loggerheads with significant parts of their workforces.

An EY survey revealed that 54% of employees would quit if their employers didn’t continue the flexible working patterns they’d grown to cherish during the pandemic once it was over. This is despite more than three-quarters of them claiming to be satisfied in their roles. This clearly illustrates the strength of feeling about having flexibility in our work lives.

It’s fair to say that many of us assumed that flexible working was here to stay for us if we wanted it. Newspaper reportsfrom the time showed that some workers had even moved house based on that assumption. However, many employers then pushed back and told their people that they were expected back in the office for at least some of the working week. These include Apple, Morgan Stanley and The Washingtonian magazine, where employees dramatically walked off the job when told they were to return to the office full time. And so began the dawning of the so-called great resignation!

The simple fact is that any such discrepancy between employees’ wishes and their employees’ expectations could pose a serious risk to that business. And many businesses have surely already suffered enough at the (un-sanitised) hands of Covid and subsequent pay demands from staff dealing with a cost of living crisis, without having to contend with soaring staff turnover, plummeting morale, or stagnant productivity.

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

Address the objections

More than 75% of us experience tension or nervousness during times of significant change. It’s human nature to feel anxious around change, and these feelings are only amplified when the change is in the opposite direction of travel to that which is desired.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the solution to this lies in effective communication.

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 increases even further, to over twelve times the success, for business-wide transformations where senior managers continuously communicate.)

Ask employees who are reluctant to return about their main reasons for this. Have some carefully considered and standardised business-wide responses prepared. Use a tool that offers anonymous interactivity for the ultimate expression of trust and transparency. Objections, concerns, and questions can then be collated and answered.

Use a personal touch

We’ve written a few times about the power of video in internal comms. Just as we are bombarded with moving pictures in our everyday lives, we want more of this in our professional comms. (The younger the employee, the more used they are to receiving their information in this format.)

Short video messages are considerably more engaging than even the best of written pieces. Crucially for a subject like this, video also offers more reassurance, authenticity, and credibility. A short clip of a senior leader talking about what is happening 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 your social channels.

Lead by example

Regardless of whether your leadership team tend to work more flexibly or remotely, having them back on-site will reassure and encourage others to follow. They should be leading by example and shouting about the benefits and personal advantages of being back on-site in person. Yes, you appreciate that the commute can be a pain, but look at what you’re missing out on by not coming in…

Be strategic

Depending on the scale of your business and return-to-site project, a comms strategy to outline the plan and support with detail may be well worth the effort. As well as considering your responses to employees’ concerns, agreeing specific comms tactics and tools to reinforce these responses can also be highly effective. It’s important that the message is consistent across the organisation. This is not the time for a varied approach and mixed messages.

Let’s take the most likely reason for reluctance as an example: “my work/life balance will suffer.” Your official response may be that flexibility will be offered where appropriate to minimise commuting times. You may also facilitate time off for other important commitments. Strategies to reinforce these may include:

  • a dedicated channel to host chat and ease collaboration for such times,

  • frequent updates, and

  • published FAQs to keep everyone informed of developments.

You may also wish to run pulse surveys to measure the mood and show that you are listening.

Make it a celebration

Being able to return to sites was, actually, a reason to be grateful – even if it hasn’t always been seen that way! We need our people to see and feel the benefits to them of returning. Focus on the collaboration, inter-personal engagement and the social element. Shout about the changes that have been made since they left the office. Inform, engage, and motivate them. Try to make returning to site a milestone that is universally celebrated across your teams.

You can take this one step further by ramping up the social elements in your workplace – the free or subsidised lunches, the book or film club meetings, birthday or work anniversary celebration events, anything that gets your people buzzing again to be around each other!


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