Many companies, including high-tech ones, that once told their workers they could work from home forever, are once again trying to recall remote workers to the office. And many of them are making arbitrary rules and showing little success.
Here are seven successful steps to return remote workers to the office.
Remote Work has Stalled
About 58 percent of companies allow employees to work part-time from home, according to Scoop Technologies, a software firm that developed an index monitoring workplace strategies of nearly 4,500 companies. Their research also shows that the return-to-the-office movement has stalled, and that flexible work is allowed mainly in the northeast and northwest.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the number of companies that require employees to be in the office full time has actually declined to 42 percent, from 49 percent from October 2022 to January 2023, Scoop said. Employees at companies with hybrid strategies work an average of 2.5 days a week in the office.
The Push to Return to the Office Continues
Last week, Farmers Insurance’s new CEO Raul Vargas made headlines by recalling remote workers to the office and was faced with angry workers, threats of quitting, and calls for unionization. Some of these employees face long commutes or actually sold homes and moved away from Farmer’s offices based on the promise of continued remote work from the previous CEO.
Despite nearly 2,000 employee complaints, the company plans to implement its hybrid work rules in September, significantly reducing the number of employees who can work remotely. Farmer’s employees within a 50-mile radius of a Farmer’s Office will work from the respective office at least three days a week. Based on business needs and different types of positions, roughly 60 percent of Farmers employees will be hybrid, while other roles will be either virtual or in-office.
Other employers — , such as Disney, Starbucks, and News Corp —have demanded employees return to the office at least three days a week., And recently, high-tech companies such as Amazon, Alphabet, Lyft, Salesforce, and Meta Platforms have made the same demand. These companies are betting that after the layoffs in high-tech, employees will be less likely to buck the order. While some companies are still offering perks to come back to the office, most of the more recent calls to the office have been ordered with a deadline and punitive measures, up to termination, if employees do not comply.
Some employees are pushing back dramatically. Amazon employees staged a protest last week over the company’s mandate that remote workers should return to the office.
Hybrid Workers Are More Efficient
Research shows that hybrid or teleworkers are more efficient than work-in-the-office employees, by as much as 47 percent more productive. And remote and hybrid workers save employers serious real estate costs – up to 50 percent— when they go hybrid and downsize their empty office space and reconfigure the office for collaboration, project rooms, relationship building, and training.
When I was at Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA, in 2012, I learned that individual office cubes and offices were in use only about 37 percent of the time, as the occupants were traveling or in meetings. The office environment was crowded, leading to huge distractions for office workers and poor productivity. Medtronic implemented a hybrid work environment in 2012 to cut the cost of wasted office space and reinvest the money in research and development. It required us to redesign our office space with fewer unused offices and cubes and add more collaborative and meeting space. It also required us to lead employees differently and put new office and team norms in place. The transition was worth it. We saved $2 million a year in real estate costs and saw office worker productivity increase by five percent per day. Better yet, the productivity of hybrid workers improved by 22 percent.
Other studies have uncovered similar findings on how open office environments needlessly devour money. Gabe Burke of Accenture wrote an excellent article on LinkedIn on January 31, 2022, which all CEOs, Real Estate, Finance, and HR VPs should read. His article calls for office real estate portfolios to be restructured because they no longer make sense after two years of Covid-19.
The article’s title says it all, Corporate real estate has become a black hole that devours money. time to fix it.
It is important to recognize that this quarter, job satisfaction is at an all time high largely due to hybrid working, as measured by The Conference Board.
Where is the endpoint for in-office versus hybrid and remote work?
If your push to return remote workers to the office is a knee-jerk reaction to get back to a management comfort zone, I suggest you are fighting a losing game. Many of today’s high tech and office workers do not want that environment. With a three million workforce shortage in the US (including high tech workers), you need to offer an employer brand that will attract and retain new talent and have them be more productive and innovative than your competition. This should include allowing hybrid working where the job duties allow it, as explained below, using the technology younger workers expect and redesigning the office to fit its new role. The end game is to have a highly motivated, productive, and innovative workforce that is dedicated to achieving your organization’s purpose, strategies and goals.
Here are seven steps to successfully return remote workers to the office and set up hybrid working
- Job Duties. Coming into the office three days a week simply doesn’t work for everyone and is a blunt instrument to guide hybrid working. Instead, identify who can work remotely three to four days a week based on their job duties. If most of their work is done through the computer and most communications can be handled by text, email, phone, and video conferencing, they can work from home. They will be required to come into the office for staff meetings, special project meetings, and one-on-one meetings at least one day a week. They will no longer have dedicated personal office space in the office, but touch-down space — such as you see in airports — to go online when they need to. Workers who are physically meeting customers or working in manufacturing, research labs, roles where they can only access sensitive files in the office, and in warehouses will have to come in the office.
- Don’t Force It. Don’t force remote work on those employees who want to return to the office four to five days a week. Leave it a choice. These employees should be allowed to keep their personal office space. On the other hand, my strong advice is that if you have told employees they can work from anywhere, I would honor that promise and allow them to continue to do so even if you phase out remote work.
- New Norms. Each department and team should work with their employees to establish new teamwork and decision-making norms for the hybrid workforce. It is good to begin this work with a template and alter it based on department needs (such as Finance or Research & Development) and by the team. At the team level, these norms need to include agreements for when each employee will be working and not working during the day to allow worker flexibility and immediate availability to the team, and to prevent worker burnout. Managers in this environment need to be excellent at setting goals and expectations, building relationships and providing constructive feedback and recognition.
- Digital Technology. Review your digital technology to support hybrid work and to provide younger workers the digital experience they want from work. This ought to include chatbots to answer commonly asked questions and digital learning platforms.
- New Employee Training. For new and younger workers, develop a calendar for when they will spend most, if not all their time, in the office to learn from mentors, managers, and peers. This should be driven by the training needs of each job category. During this time, they will need dedicated personal office space. When they reach defined competence levels, they can switch to a hybrid work model.
- Redesign the Office. Following the above plan, determine how much dedicated personal office space you need to retain and convert the rest to more meeting rooms with excellent video conferencing equipment, touch-down spaces, and training rooms. The remaining space can be sold off or sub-leased. You will find yourself saving a small fortune that can be used to fund critical business strategies. I strongly recommend you read Gary Burke’s article above and think of the office as a place for aligning employees to culture, strategies, and goals, gathering for recognitions, meetings, and group learning.
- Measures. Establish measures to see that you build upon your productivity gains during the COVID-19 lockdown and improve employee morale and engagement. These measures should include ensuring your employees who work remotely are still getting the mentoring and development needed to advance their careers and retain them — equal to in-office high potential employees. Also, track your cost and carbon emission savings.
Many companies are making arbitrary rules about returning to the office with little success and are facing walkouts, higher turnover, and threats of unionization. It doesn’t have to be this way. Use my seven successful steps to build a better strategy. And think about the end game. What is your employee brand? Are you more efficient, innovative, and do you have a higher percentage of your employees committed to the organization’s success?
In other words, are you using your office space intelligently?
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and managing partner of InnovationOne, LLC. He works with organizations to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: The Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. He is quoted in business journals such as The Wall Street Journal, Workforce Management, and CEO Magazine. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at http://www.VictorHRConsultant.com.