We can scarcely believe that, just over a month ago, we just rolled past the third anniversary of the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an international public health emergency. Thanks to the incredible efforts of the medical community and the global public, we were able to overcome the crisis point of the pandemic in record time. 

But here’s the deal. The world - especially the working world - was fundamentally transformed by (brace for it) The New Normal. The way we work changed almost overnight, yet it’s taking us more than a few months to negotiate how we’re going to go back to work as we knew it - or if we’re going to do that at all. 

Last year, as many workers started to return to their in-person offices in droves, we saw tension arise between stakeholders who wanted a return to normalcy and employees who were reluctant to give up working remotely. We saw the emergence of the hybrid work model as a well-tolerated solution that satiated everybody’s needs. 

Three years after office doors closed and Zoom became part of the corporate lexicon, many workplaces are still negotiating if or how they are going to return to the office. How are employees feeling about it? How are HR professionals and managers feeling about it? Let’s get into it. 

How do different stakeholders feel about the return to office?

As one might expect, employees feel a little differently about returning to the office than their HR professionals and managers do. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Workest by Zenefits, 68% of HR professionals and small business owners want to go back to working at a physical workplace. On the other hand, only 53% of employees who were asked the same question answered in the affirmative. 

Interestingly, both managers and employees report enjoying working from home. 92% of HR pros and business owners and 94% of employees reported enjoying remote work. So we’re on the same page there - it’s just that those in management positions are keener to return to the office than their employees are. 

And for good reason, too. Among HR and management respondents who are pro-RTO, the top reasons cited for wanting to return to a physical workplace included: 

  1. In-person meetings and collaborations (47%) 
  2. Social interactions with coworkers (37%) 
  3. In-office perks (15%) 
  4. Having a dedicated workspace (5%) 

On the flip side, the top reasons cited by pro-remote employees included: 

  1. A healthy work-life balance (41%) 
  2. Flexible work hours (22%) 
  3. No commute (14%) 

Ultimately, the Workest survey demonstrates that everyone is aligned about the benefits of working from home. Both parties agree that remote work is conducive to more productive working hours, work that is of higher quality, and a healthier work-life balance. 

That being said, HR professionals and business owners are more likely to support a return to the office. The employees who responded to the survey were pretty evenly split on the subject of RTO - 53% said that they wanted to go back to a physical office, while 47% said that they were content to keep working remotely. 

Age comes into play as well

You’d think that the tech-savvy job-hoppers would be the ones to favor remote work, but it’s actually Millennials and Gen Z employees who are the keenest of all the generations in the workforce to return to the office. According to the Harvard Business Review, younger employees stand to gain the most from personal connections and mentoring opportunities at work whereas older workers with longer track records require less supervision and are more familiar with their roles. Older folks are also more inclined to exercise caution against contracting COVID-19. 

This insight is consistent with the Workest survey, which reflects that the top reasons why employees want to return to the office are: 

  1. Social interactions with coworkers (44%) 
  2. In-person meetings and collaborations (33%) 
  3. In-office perks (13%) 
  4. Having a dedicated workspace (10%) 

Generally, it appears that everybody enjoys the benefits of working from home, but the trend seems to be sliding towards a return to the office. Hybrid models and other solutions have shown us that when we’re curious about how to accommodate what everyone needs to do their best work, we can get the best of both worlds. 

A return to the office doesn’t mean a return to the past

One of the opportunities that has arisen from the Great Return to Office has been the chance to reimagine how in-person offices operate. For HR professionals and managers who are dealing with employees who are anxious about returning to the office, it may be helpful to remind them that a return to office doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the way things were before the pandemic. 

That is to say, if you are conducting a return to office, you should take care to outline all the ways in which your employees will be supported during the transition. According to the Workest survey, many workplaces are rethinking the perks and benefits that they have on offer for employees. That’s especially poignant considering that, for many employees, the opportunity for remote work is no longer a work perk - it’s an employee right. 

Some of the perks and benefits that offices are rethinking include: 

  • COVID-19 health and safety precautions (masking and social distancing) 
  • Hybrid work models 
  • Childcare benefits 
  • Access to mental health and wellness programs 
  • Transportation benefits 
  • Casual attire in the office 
  • Pet-friendly work environments  

Remaining flexible enough to accommodate the perks and benefits which allow employees to do their best work is in the best interests of all parties involved. Sure, it might call for some creative thinking, but you know what they say - necessity breeds ingenuity. 

How to conduct a return to the office

If you’re in charge of conducting your organization’s transition from a remote work model to a hybrid model or a full-blown return to office, HBR has a few tips and tricks that you could follow for the best outcomes.

Maintain channels of communication 

Take care to clearly communicate the vision from upper management so that employees can understand the why behind the return to office. If they don’t buy it, it could be received as coercion. 

Reframe the RTO in terms of what they stand to gain 

Employees could receive the return to office as a loss of personal autonomy, so it helps to reframe it in terms of what they stand to gain by going back in. A return to office might strengthen their relationships with coworkers, restore a much-needed social element to their work, and establish clearer boundaries between work and personal life with a dedicated workspace.  

Consider a pilot program 

A sudden return to work could overwhelm employees, especially if your organization is transitioning from fully remote to fully in-person. In situations like this, it may be beneficial to implement a pilot program which restores some agency to when and how employees return to the office. For instance, they could pick one day a week when they go into the office for a couple of weeks and check back in. Baby steps are never a bad idea. 

You could even roll out this approach on an individual basis for employees who are especially anxious about returning to the office or have ongoing caretaking responsibilities that keep them at home. 

Wherever you’re based, you can boost team morale with Gifted

No matter where your organization is in your RTO journey, it’s never been easier to reunify teams and bolster morale than with Gifted. Our gifting and recognition platform is super-flexy, bending over backward to accommodate office teams, hybrid teams, and remote teams. 

Negotiating the question of when, how, or if your teams will return to the office is a tough one. Gifted is here to make HR just a little bit easier. In just a few clicks, you could welcome everyone back to the office or send a company-wide gift voucher to keep motivating the folks who work from home. Your side-kick, your choice. Check out the full range of Gifted’s capabilities here and become the company superhero today.