Learning & Development

Why Bagels and Fear Won’t Lead to a Successful Return to Office

A steady increase in office occupancy and a recent decline in the number of available remote positions have led some leaders to declare victory in the long-running campaign to get employees back in the office. But even as the tide of remote work starts to recede, research shows that many employees are reluctant to return to in-person work.

That reluctance presents a serious problem for employers, as dissatisfied employees are much less likely to be productive and much more likely to leave their companies prematurely. This can drive up costs and create a drag on productivity at a pivotal moment in the market.

To boost satisfaction and increase in-person attendance, some leaders have implemented one-off perks like morning bagels or catered lunches. In many cases, these perks are accompanied by a return-to-office (RTO) mandate, like the one issued by Amazon earlier this year.

While this two-pronged approach might get employees back into the office, low employee satisfaction numbers have shown that bagels and fear are not the cornerstones of a truly successful RTO strategy. To make your RTO plan work, you have to get buy-in from your employees on a deeper level, and if you don’t, you risk hurting your company.

Here are four practical tips that can serve as a strong foundation for a holistic RTO strategy. 

RTO Strategy Tip #1: Build Stronger Communities to Improve Employee Satisfaction

Today’s employees want stronger and more cohesive workplace communities. McKinsey has found, for example, that a “non-inclusive, unwelcoming, and disconnected [workplace] community” was 1 of the top 10 reasons U.S. employees left their jobs in 2022. Community was one of the big things we lost during the pandemic, and now, employees are trying hard to get it back.

Many C-suite leaders understand the importance of workplace culture and are working to repair the damage the pandemic inflicted on their workplace communities and culture. But despite new innovations in connectivity and productivity technology, most executives have found it’s almost impossible to replace in-person connection with digital engagement. And that’s mainly because—as most of us know by now—a virtual happy hour, class, or party is never quite as good as the real thing. The pandemic has shown us that digital interactions simply do not equate to real ones, particularly when it comes to building culture and community at work. 

As the RTO continues, it’s important to remember that community and in-person connection are a big part of what makes the office a value-driver for leading companies. By holding a regular schedule of engaging events, classes, and other work-social gatherings, you can start to build stronger bonds that keep employees active, productive, and engaged. 

RTO Strategy Tip #2: Boost Attendance By Removing Friction from the First 15 Minutes of the Day

In user experience (UX) design, designers observe a psychological concept called the “principle of least effort,” which says users will generally follow a path of least resistance when engaging with software or technology. The logic behind this principle is pretty straightforward: Because of the way humans think, we’ll always prefer technology that offers less resistance when it’s being used. It also says users tend to avoid technology if they encounter too much resistance when they’re using it. While this principle is mainly used in product and UX design, you can also use the “principle of least effort” to boost in-person attendance. 

By using the principle of least effort to redesign your workplace experience, you can identify and remove points of friction from employees’ workday, which makes it much more likely that they’ll come back to the office on subsequent days. Points of friction vary from workplace to workplace, but in general, you can help your employees have a good start to the day by making entry to the office as frictionless as possible. One great way to do this is by supporting their commutes with added benefits and mobility information. Another is to ensure all employees have seamless access to secure office spaces. Solutions need to be tailor-made to fit each workplace, but the principle of least effort can go a long way toward boosting your engagement strategy.

RTO Strategy Tip #3: Increase Engagement by Improving In-Office Access to Leadership

Today, employees come to the office to do group work, meet with peers, and socialize, among many other things. But as workplace decision-makers take steps to support the most important workplace activities, it’s important to remember that many employees don’t just come to the office to do work or socialize—they also come to see and be seen by managers and leaders.

Even today, as the whole idea of a “workplace” is in flux, the office still provides employees with valuable opportunities to get face time with their managers. That’s why workplace decision-makers should do more to improve access to leadership by making small changes to the workplace environment. This can include, for example, seating leaders in accessible areas in the office. By making managers more accessible and visible, you make it easier for employees to both demonstrate their value and express their concerns. You also make it easier to build a cohesive workplace community.

In addition to rearranging the seating chart, you could also consider starting an in-person speaking series—“fireside chats”—with directors, managers, and other senior leaders. This helps drive employee engagement and in-person attendance. You should also hold events and activities that get managers and employees talking to each other. Better relationships with leaders help employees feel a greater sense of connection to the company’s leadership and core purpose, and at the end of the day, that’s one of the things a holistic RTO strategy is all about.

RTO Strategy Tip #4: Use Strategic ‘Neighborhood Design’ to Improve Collaboration and Productivity

Neighborhood design is a workplace design concept that organizes employee workspaces into clusters based on the kind of work employees typically perform. In today’s workplace, leaders should think strategically about which employees can and should sit where instead of organizing the office into haphazard clusters. Should marketing sit close to sales? Should customer support sit close to technical teams? The answers to these questions depend on the dynamics within your organization, as well as your organization’s overarching business goals, but today, it’s important to be intentional with this kind of choice. You should work with HR and workplace experience leaders, as well as leaders from each department, to develop a strategic floor plan that best enables collaboration and productivity.

Put Your People at the Heart of Your RTO Plan

It’s important to remember, as a general guiding principle, that you should always put people at the center of your RTO strategy—and that’s because, at the end of the day, people and the communities they create are what makes the office a rewarding and enjoyable place to be.

Without community, the office is just a place. But with community, it’s a human place that fosters innovation and helps us build a better world.

Chase Garbarino is the cofounder and CEO of HqO, a leading real estate experience platform.

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