By Indeed Editorial Team

The return-to-office tug-of-war has been dragging on for three years, and as the holiday season comes to a close, it’s likely to heat up once again. Major employers such as Disney, Starbucks, Google, Apple and Amazon have called employees back into the office at least three to four days per week, with Meta, Lyft and others set to follow in September. Even Zoom, a company inextricably linked to the pandemic-era shift to remote work, has now opted for a structured hybrid approach

Company leaders say they want employees back in person to boost collaboration and productivity – but they’re met with resistance from workers who are reluctant to give up the freedom and flexibility of remote work.

When Amazon announced its plans, workers started a petition that garnered 30,000 signatures. Other employers have resorted to ultimatums and bribery to boost worker attendance, with Google threatening poor performance reviews and Salesforce offering to match days spent in the office with charitable donations. In companies requiring a five-day-week return, most employees simply ignore the mandate. Meanwhile, some managers expect employees to come into the office (while staying at home themselves). 

'The reality is, the pandemic forever changed the way we work,' says Priscilla Koranteng, Indeed’s Chief People Officer. 'The most successful organisations today are embracing flexibility, and not just implementing return-to-office policies – but also giving people a place that they want to return to.'

With this in mind, here are four strategies for getting return-to-office buy-in from employees.

1. Embrace hybrid work 

There’s no denying it: hybrid work is emerging as the clear winner for return-to-office policies. According to McKinsey’s State of Organisations 2023 report, 90% of employers have implemented some form of hybrid-work arrangement – and four out of five employees who have engaged in hybrid work in the past two years would like to keep it that way. Research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, 28% of workers are working with a hybrid model, while 16% are fully remote.

Going hybrid offers many benefits for companies and their workers, including:

Work wellbeing

Flexibility is a key driver of work wellbeing. Research shows that employees who choose to work from home exhibit a 13% boost in performance, higher job satisfaction and lower attrition, while new mothers who work at home are less likely to experience depression. In another survey from the ONS, UK workers listed the top benefits of working from home as better work-life balance, fewer distractions, being quicker to complete work, improved wellbeing, and finding it easier to think of new ideas. 

Productivity

Workers say they’re more efficient when working from home, but managers’ concerns about productivity may not be entirely unfounded: research conducted by Vitality found that productivity is 13% lower in fully remote working arrangements compared to hybrid work arrangements. The same study also found that fully remote workers lost the most productive days, at 53 days, whereas hybrid workers lost the least, at 47 days.

Recruitment and hiring

Hybrid work policies are also a competitive recruitment tool in the ongoing tight labour market. In a Scoop Technologies Inc. survey of around 3,600 companies, those with flexible work options – including remote, electively remote and hybrid – hired people more than two times faster than fully in-office organisations. Adopting a hybrid-first approach to work has enabled the company Autodesk to increase the number of job applications by 58%, including an 82% boost in female-identifying candidates and a 45% increase in candidates from underrepresented groups.

As you create or solidify your hybrid work policies, consider what will strike the ideal balance between productivity and work wellbeing while still offering enough flexibility to give you the competitive edge for talent. Though there are many types of models, many companies are moving toward a structured hybrid approach, generally requiring workers to come in two to three days per week between Tuesday and Thursday.

2. Reimagine your workspace

With structured hybrid arrangements, your workplace may be a virtual ghost town on Mondays and Fridays but experience high traffic on other days. How will you reimagine your office to accommodate the new ways of working?

'One of the more important things we discovered during the pandemic is that different people have different needs in order to be the most happy and productive,' says Indeed CEO Chris Hyams in a recent episode of the Indeed podcast Here to Help. 'Some people need quiet time, some people need interactions and some people need a combination of the two.' 

Indeed, which had shifted to fully remote work during the pandemic, began requiring a portion of its workforce to return to the office at least two days per week in the summer of 2023. The new Indeed Tower global co-headquarters in Austin, Texas, is not only a thoughtfully designed space that encourages community and collaboration but also a flexible, hybrid-first work environment that’s versatile and customisable. It offers a 'coffee-shop' workplace experience and promotes hybrid collaboration through features such as wireless-first offerings, so workers are free to easily move about the office, as well as updated Zoom technology and movable digital whiteboards. In addition, half of the conference rooms feature flexible partitions, allowing the architecture of the office to adapt as usage needs change. 

In this podcast episode, Yaeji Myung, a workplace innovation manager at Indeed, explains that what was once considered 'hardware' – structures that would take months to renovate – can become 'software' that adapts to the fluctuating occupancies of modern offices, such as the partitions. 'We have the ability to potentially change and bring down those walls, enlarge some conference rooms [or] make them smaller, where we didn’t have that flexibility before,' she says.

3. Commit to equity, inclusivity and belonging

Though the return-to-office discussion often centres around issues of productivity and work-life balance, these mandates also have a greater impact on women and historically marginalised groups. For example:

  • Workers with disabilities: Remote-work options open up opportunities to those with accessibility needs that may not be met in a physical office environment.
  • LGBTQ+ workers: In an Indeed survey of LGBTQ+ workers in the US, 76% of those working in a hybrid or remote capacity said they feel safer expressing themselves from home as opposed to working in the office. 

If you’re asking workers in these groups to return to the physical office, are you also providing them with the support they need to succeed, maintain work wellbeing and feel like they belong in your organisation? 

This might mean strengthening or expanding the focus of your DEIB programme, upgrading accessibility accommodations in your office, or bolstering Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Business Resource Groups (BRGs) that provide employees with opportunities to connect with peers and make their voices heard. Consider enhancing your family-friendly benefits as well, including offering paid parental leave, flexible work hours and resources for working parents, such as services that assist with finding quality backup childcare options. 

To guide your efforts, conduct employee engagement surveys and focus groups with workers from underrepresented communities to see where you can improve equity, inclusivity and belonging and act upon your findings.

4. Cultivate connection

For Hyams, the dialogue around the return to the office is a classic case of the manager–worker divide – but not in the way you might think. 'Managers want people to go back to work because they think they’ll be more productive, but employees actually want to go back for connection,' he recently shared in Fast Company

No one likes commuting to an office only to sit in Zoom meetings all day, so it’s imperative to intentionally create opportunities for employees to forge bonds, network and connect with one another face to face. As part of a structured hybrid approach, try choosing 'anchor days' – usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – to draw employees back into the office at the same time. Use these common touchpoints to plan company-wide meetings, training opportunities and other group activities. Encourage managers to hold their team meetings, one-on-ones and team lunches on these days as well. The opportunity to make meaningful connections will help ensure that employees value their time spent together in person.

At the end of the day, nothing matches the value of human connection. 

'I think that’s what we all realised after being quarantined during the pandemic,' says Myung. 'There’s just something about the ability to connect with someone in person that technology hasn’t achieved yet.'