Since offices have been opening back up, some, but certainly not all, employers are coming up with various schemes to get people to return to the office (RTO). Per usual, companies are looking at this more so from their perspective than that of their employees. But, what they should be doing is looking at why resistance is so high before coming up with ideas. There are several reasons why some people are avoiding RTO. They include:
Loss of Autonomy
More so than anything else, work from home (WFH) has given people a level of control over their day-to-day lives that they had not previously experienced as adults. In the past we heard a lot of talk about “being your own boss” and “make decisions like you’re the CEO.” Well, this is that time. When people have been able to successfully manage their work time around the rest of their lives, that is going to be hard to give up. For these people, companies will need to find a way to allow them to make RTO choices and have flexibility over them. Hybrid environments may speak to this group, provided that employees get to choose which days to come in.
New Habits Are Hard to Break
Pre-COVID, we had developed routines for our every day. It’s these habits that make us (somewhat) resistant to organizational change and (partially) keep turnover low. People who now WFH have new habits that they don’t want to break. They have a schedule of when they make calls, return e-mails, take lunch breaks, etc. Companies would be wise to let employees coming back to the office know that they can keep many of these habits and that management won’t be dictating their schedule as much.
Life at Home is Better
Let’s speak some honest truths—not commuting, working in whichever clothes you wish, being around when the kids come home from school, spending more time with pets, saving money on gas/lunch, etc. are perks for those who WFH. By the way, the idea that people are abandoning pets they got during the pandemic is an urban legend. These are all reasons why people do not want to RTO. While come companies think that free coffee and snacks will make the work environment more enticing, it won’t. Would you commute for coffee? Companies should emphasize those things which are better, in a meaningful and not a nice-to-have way, about working from the office when encouraging workers to come back. These could include face-to-face interactions with other adults, more reliable technology, and support for administrative tasks. As with any change, employees need to know what is in it for them.
People who are used to and enjoy WFH are unlikely to respond to gimmicks. I would suggest that organizations think about RTO as an organizational change effort and not a mandate. This means looking at how encouraging people to work at the office fits into your strategy and quantifying what benefits are to be gained. Additionally, this means analyzing why employees are supportive/resistant to RTO and planning the change effort accordingly. Apply the same rigor to changing work schedules as you would implementing other enterprise wide initiatives.
While WFH happened quickly, we are past the point where people are adapting to it. For many it is now a way of life, just as going to work every day was pre-pandemic. Expecting people to change overnight is not an effective strategy. For any form of RTO to successfully take hold (e.g., without increases in turnover or decreases in engagement), with minimal negative consequences, it needs to be part of a plan.