How to deal with employees’ reluctance to returning to the office

If you’re finding that a significant proportion of your workforce is finding every excuse not to return to the office now that the pandemic is (all but) over, you’re far from alone. (And, let’s be honest, this week’s rail strikes are providing a perfect excuse for many.)

By: James Blair on

An EY survey showed that more than 54% of employees around the world said they would leave their jobs if they weren’t offered, or able to maintain, flexible working post-Covid. This is despite 3/4 of that same group saying they’re satisfied with their jobs. This hammers home the strength of feeling about having flexibility in our work lives.

To reinforce this, nearly half of those questioned claimed that their organisational culture has improved over the course of the pandemic!

A lot of workers assumed that the flexible working practices thrust upon them during lockdowns would become a permanent option for them if they wanted it. Newspaper reports from last year show that some have even relocated on that assumption. However, many employers are now informing their employees that they are expected in the office for at least some, if not the majority of, of their working weeks. These include Apple, Morgan Stanley and The Washingtonian magazine, where employees walked off the job when they were told to return to the office full time.

This disparity between employees’ wishes and their employees’ expectations could be a significant risk to businesses up and down the country. Many companies that have already suffered because of Covid can ill afford plummeting morale, rocketing staff turnover, and sluggish productivity.

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

Address any objections head-on

It’s human nature to feel anxious or cautious when faced with change and these emotions are further amplified when the change is in the opposite direction to that which is desired. Unsurprisingly, the solution to this lies in 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.”

Asking your people about their reasons for not wanting to return to site and having some carefully considered and business-wide, standardised responses is crucial.

For example, if a recurring reason is “feeling at risk from Covid if I return to site”, the response may be to list in detail all the precautions that have been introduced within shared spaces to protect the health of those who use them. As a bonus, a quick survey could be run to ask employees which extra precautions they would like to see.

Keep comms personal

The power of video in internal comms is undeniable. Just as we are all bombarded with videos in our everyday lives, our workers expect more of this in their professional comms. Short video messages can be so much more engaging than even the most carefully written piece and, crucially for subject matter like this, can be far more authentic, credible, and reassuring. A brief clip of a senior leader talking about what is being done on-site, and how these precautions have allayed their own personal concerns, will be more sincerely reassuring than an e-mail or staff newsletter.

Lead by example

Regardless of whether your senior leaders tend to work remotely or flexibly, having them visibly back on-site should reassure and encourage others to follow. Leaders should be setting an example and shouting about the benefits (both to the business and personally) of being back in person.

Make returning a celebration

Of course, being able to return to our places of work is a reason to be happy. It’s a sign that those in-the-know believe that any risks from the virus are fading fast. We just need our people to see and feel the benefits of returning. Focus on engagement, collaboration, and the social elements. Use your recognition platform to full effect to celebrate and shout about the wins that are coming from being back together again. Get your people to proactively appreciate their colleagues for the support they’re able to get (and give) again) now they’re back together again. Make this a milestone that is universally celebrated across your entire business.