Benefits and Compensation, Learning & Development

Have You Adopted a Push or Pull Approach to RTO?

Almost one quarter of the way through 2024, the return-to-office (RTO) battle rages on in many organizations. While the medical necessity of remote work has long since passed, employees have gotten a taste of the good life and the flexibility that comes with it, and they are reluctant to give that up.

Pulling on the other end of the rope, many major employers – companies like Amazon, Twitter, J.P. Morgan and Unilever—are demanding (with varying degrees of pressure) that their staff come back into the physical office.

It may seem like RTO is largely a zero-sum struggle between employers and employees. Either employees win and get to work remotely, or employers win and succeed in bringing staff back into the office, at least a couple of days per week.

But there may also be a third way. Many companies have opted for more of a pull instead of push approach at RTO, meaning they are putting in place strategies to encourage staff to come back to the office voluntarily, while not actually requiring it.

Building a Sense of Community

One of the key ways to get workers to want to come into the office is by fostering a sense of community that is enhanced during face-to-face interactions. When staff genuinely like their coworkers, they’ll be more eager to spend time with them in the office, and hopefully collaborate better together as well.

“Like many other companies, Resume Genius adopted a hybrid work environment during Covid,” says Ida Peterson, a Senior Coach and Resume Expert at Resume Genius. “Now that the pandemic is over, we’re still allowed to work from home twice a week. And, to sweeten the deal, we’re given free breakfast on Mondays, and Wednesday is bubble tea day. Since implementing this arrangement, Tuesdays and Thursdays are usually the quietest days in the office and then people come in on Friday to grab afternoon drinks together and maybe watch a movie or play video games. Also, our lovely office manager Jill always makes our snack cabinet and beer fridge is well-stocked to keep us all happy.”

While the free food and access to video games and movies are nice benefits, it’s the socialization that’s key to fostering the sense of community. The perks are just the catalyst.

“Little perks like this not only make you feel more motivated to go back to the office, they also give you a chance to bond with your coworkers which I think is really important,” Peterson elaborates. “Personally, I go to the office most days, even if I don’t have to, simply because I enjoy spending time with my colleagues.”

Traditional Perks Won’t Cut It

While Resume Genius has had some success with fairly basic office perks, employers should be aware that they generally can’t phone it in if they want their office perks to truly entice workers back into the office voluntarily. The kinds of things that seemed like top tier perks back in 2019 aren’t necessarily that appealing when compared to the flexibility and convenience of staying at home.

“While free food and on-site childcare are nice-to-haves, these don’t replace the newfound freedom remote work offers. HR leaders who are mandating employees back to the office are missing the point of flexibility and the future of work,” says Carina Cortez, Chief People Officer of Cornerstone On-Demand. “The reality is, many employees aren’t willing to uproot their well-balanced lives for frivolous perks,” Cortez says.

For example, working parents whose to-do lists extend far beyond the daily workplace deliverables. With remote work, Cortez notes: “Parents can now drop their children at daycare and eat dinner with their family without the bumper-to-bumper commutes. Employees can schedule mid-day doctor appointments, take their pets to the vet, check-in on elderly parents, etc.”

Making It Meaningful

Some employers are taking steps to ensure their perks are meaningful and aligned with employee needs and interests. For instance, EY has developed an “EY WOW Fund” that reimburses employees up to $800 a year for committing, dependent care and pet care related costs,” says Frank Giampietro, EY Americas Chief Well-being Officer. Since creating the fund, he says, “we have seen a 150% increase in people coming into the office.”

Ask the Workers!

It’s always amazing how many companies spend so much time and money trying to figure out what their employees want when they could simply ask them. By polling staff about what factors might make them or less likely to come into the office, leaders might be surprised just how far off base their own motivational ideas are.

For instance, while employers might assume leisure-focused perks are top of mind, employees may actually value coming into the office because of the productivity-boosting resources that they can’t replicate in their home office. In this sense, “perks” might be things like large conference rooms with big white boards for group brainstorming sessions, more ergonomic office furniture or even more reliable internet.

Other perks that might entice workers back into the office might not be “things” at all, but simply a concession to the kind of flexibility that makes remote work so attractive.

“What companies most often fail to do is simply ask employees what motivates them, and which perks they would prefer,” says Dr. Jennifer Nash, leadership consultant and author of the book Be Human, Lead Human: How to Connect People and Performance. “Pizza parties and ping pong tables aren’t helpful if what employees really crave is the autonomy to work in the ways that work best for them, the freedom to determine which days of the week they’ll work in office and which from home, and the knowledge that they are seen, heard, understood, and valued as human beings, not just employees.”

So, for example, companies that want workers to voluntarily commit to coming into the office on certain days of the week, should make an effort to be flexible on how long employees would be expected to stay and their ability to step away for an hour if they needed to run a quick errand, like they might do while working at home.

Find the Right Balance

Jeewon Lee, Assistant General Counsel, HR Consultant with Engage PEO, points out that “When it comes to getting employees back to the office, it’s all about finding the sweet spot between what they want and what the company needs.”

The economic slowdown, Lee points out, is giving employers increasing negotiating power. But, that pendulum is continually shifting. Effective managers, Lee says, “make sure in office days are productive and ‘worth it’.” Coming in just to set at a desk all day, without any interaction, misses the point.

“Hybrid and full in-office models are here to stay for the near future,” Lee says. “Companies need to consider that return to office policies might not work for all employees.”

In navigating RTO dynamics, companies are exploring innovative strategies to reconcile employee preferences for flexibility with the benefits of in-person collaboration. An emerging viewpoint suggests that the path forward lies not in mandates but in creating an office environment that employees are genuinely eager to return to. By fostering a sense of community through social incentives and acknowledging the importance of work-life balance, organizations like Resume Genius are setting examples of how to attract staff back to the office.

However, as leaders like Carina Cortez and Dr. Jennifer Nash point out, understanding and meeting the deeper needs of employees—through flexibility, autonomy, and a human-centric approach—often proves most effective. The future of RTO may well hinge on a company’s ability to listen, adapt, and offer the kind of workplace where employees feel valued, seen, and heard.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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