Return-to-Office: A Post-COVID Guide to Effective Employee Engagement

As we learn to live with COVID, the world is slowly returning to work and people are adapting to a new normal. With this comes unprecedented pressure on HR departments to help ensure that employees can return to the workplace safely.

At the end of the day, there is only one thing that will help your business recover from COVID and get back to normal: an employee engagement strategy that you can follow to get the office up and running smoothly again.

Back to the office and back to work

The pandemic is far from over. But as most COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the vaccinated population grows, more companies are requiring that their employees return to in-person work—at least in part.

For example, Apple has told its workforce they should expect to come into the office at least three days a week starting in February 2022.

Popular short-video app TikTok is also asking its staff to work from the office three days a week, arguing there’s no substitute for personal collaboration. 

And Google, one of the first major U.S. companies to send employees home following the breakout of the coronavirus, announced plans in mid-2021 to get staffers back to the office. 

covid-era concerns about returning to the office
Source: AT&T

While employers may be eager to see people back in the office, many employees feel anxious or reluctant to return to in-person work. 

Their top concerns, according to a recent study, include personal health and safety (77%), the idea of less flexibility (71%), and having to commute to the office again (68.5%). 

However, returning to the physical workplace seems like an inevitable future for many workers despite the fact that the new COVID-19 variants have caused some employers to delay their return-to-work plans. 

In a new study, Cushman & Wakefield says around 40% of all global office employees have returned to the office as of September 2021. 

China is leading the return with over 90% back. Other regions studied fall between 27% and 40% of workers in the office on any given day.

The firm’s projections show that, at the current vaccination rate, most of the world will achieve herd resiliency—i.e., more than 70% either vaccinated or infected—by the second quarter of 2022. 

It predicts that Canada will achieve herd resiliency first, followed by the United States, Europe, and China.

Cushman & Wakefield expects most office workers globally to be able to go back to the office in the first quarter of 2022. 

It says China will continue to lead the return, followed by Europe, the U.S., Canada, and finally the Asia Pacific region. 

The case for on-site work 

The many benefits of working from home for both employers and employees have been well documented. 

Its benefits for workers include more flexibility, more autonomy, location independence, increased productivity, less time spent commuting, and higher morale and job satisfaction. 

Some of the advantages of remote work for employers are access to a wider talent pool, greater inclusion and diversity across the company, improved employee retention, reduced absenteeism, lower overhead costs, and incentive to improve workplace technology. 

However, working from home has its own set of drawbacks, with the most serious ones being: 

  • More meetings: A recent study shows that many employees have to attend more meetings after going remote. Even before the pandemic, those working remotely attended more meetings than office workers, according to the 2019 Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report. While just 3% of on-site workers had more than 10 meetings a week, that was true of 14% of remote professionals. 
  • Blurred work-life boundaries: A survey by Monster.com revealed that 69% of remote professionals are experiencing burnout symptoms, especially because of the fading border between work and life. About 70% of employees who transitioned to remote work thanks to the pandemic say they now work on the weekends. Nearly half of them report they regularly work longer hours during the week than they did before.  
  • Worsening mental health: COVID-19 itself has obviously been a major stressor for many workers. However, multiple studies suggest that remote work can increase loneliness and boredom among employees. 
  • Cybersecurity concerns: In a recent survey, OpenVPN found that 90% of IT professionals believe remote staff are not secure. Over 70% think remote workers pose a greater risk than on-site employees.
  • More difficult collaboration: Some researchers argue that full-time remote workers may have a harder time being creative, solving problems, and collaborating with their colleagues. This is a pretty significant potential downside to a fully remote work model because inadequate communication to and between employees cost companies an estimated $62.4 million per year on average. 

The mentioned disadvantages of remote work, in addition to other benefits of on-site work such as increased focus and the regular daily structure of an office, makes a compelling case for businesses to push for a return to the office. This could be full time or in a hybrid model.

PeopleOps: The important role of HR 

The pandemic highlighted the role of those in HR and PeopleOps positions. Their expertise was needed more than ever before as businesses transitioned to remote work.  

They had to lead the companies through the crisis, supporting employees while developing and implementing new policies around remote and hybrid work arrangements, mental health, employee engagement, equity, and inclusion. 

In many cases, they even had to redefine core aspects and functions of their organisations. 

The role of HR has become even more valuable and meaningful and is evolving further now that companies are starting to plan their return to the office. 

This shift is reflected in the rapid rise in the number of searches for HR positions. 

Recent data from job site Indeed show that HR and talent position openings have increased by 52% from their pre-pandemic baseline. 

Compensation levels for people operations professionals have also increased, especially at the executive level. 

Some companies are paying chief people officers on par with CFO compensation. 

The Great Resignation is also cementing HR leaders as crucial voices within organisations given their role in retaining the best talent. 

According to Gartner, just 23% of HR professionals believe most employees will stay in their current organisation after the pandemic ends.  

Need to understand return-to-office challenges 

To build up their reputation as indispensable assets to any business, people operations professionals should help the leadership develop an efficient return-to-work plan that would benefit both employers and employees. They also have a crucial role to play in executing that plan. 

All this starts with understanding the challenges associated with the return to the workplace. So let’s have a look at some of the most important ones facing employers and employees: 

  • Increased health and safety concerns: According to an IBM survey, workers’ top concern about a return to work is related to health and safety. The protective measures that would make them feel safe include promotion of healthy hygiene and sanitation (66%), enforcement of social distancing for employees (53%), enforcement of social distancing for patrons (52%), mandatory face coverings for employees (48%), mandatory health tests for employees (42%), mandatory face coverings for patrons (39%), mandatory COVID-19 tests for employees (36%), and mandatory health tests or checks for patrons (28%). As for vaccination, EY found in a recent survey that 61% of workers want their employer to make it a prerequisite for working from the office. 
  • Misalignment between the leadership and employees: Experts argue that the potential misalignment between the expectations of managers and employees is one of the biggest challenges associated with the return to the office. More than half (54%) of employees, according to an EY survey, would consider leaving their job post-pandemic if they were not offered some form of flexibility in where and when they work. On average, EY says, workers would want to work between two and three days from home. And 33% want a shorter working week. Gartner reports that 43% and 30% of employees, respectively, believe flexibility and less or no time commuting help them be more productive. Flexibility is so important to workers that 21% are willing to give up some of their vacation time in exchange for flexible working options.
  • Lack of trust in leadership: IBM found in a recent survey that fewer than one in four employees trust their employers to make ethical and informed return-to-the-office decisions that consider the economic implications and the health and well-being of individuals and communities. 
  • Emotional support expectations: In a survey of around 5,000 office workers in five different countries, every single respondent said they feel anxious about the idea of returning to in-person work. About 60% reported that their employer hadn’t asked for their opinions about return-to-the-office policies and procedures. This lack of communication, according to experts, could create anxiety for those workers who don’t want, or are not ready yet, to go back to their physical workplaces. Meanwhile, a McKinsey survey reveals that roughly one in three workers back in the office believe the shift has negatively impacted their mental health. Parents and caregivers of children are more likely to be worried about the shift. Their main concern is that being in public could increase their chances of getting the diseases and spreading it to children at home.  
  • Need to redesign offices: The pandemic resulted in new ways of working. So organisations must reimagine the role of offices in creating not only safe but productive and enjoyable experiences for employees. 
  • Need to recalculate costs: The overhead costs that companies once paid for office space may no longer be necessary. That’s why businesses have to reassess how much space they’ll need and whether they should downsize before their employees get back to the office.

How to ensure a safe, smooth return to office 

The return to on-site activity is not a simple overnight switch. However, HR professionals can help facilitate the process by helping the leadership design and implement plans that can reinforce the positive impact of in-person work while supporting workers who are more likely to experience a negative impact. 

If you’re part of the HR team, you’re encouraged to consider the following recommendations to help ease the transition back to the office and make sure employees are healthy, happy, and productive.  

  • Prioritise employee health and safety: Personal health is one of the main concerns associated with returning to the office. So certain measures need to be implemented to put employees’ minds at ease. These include improved air filtration, easy access to rapid testing, reorganising the space to allow for maximum social distancing, and developing guidelines about use of masks, illness reporting, etc. You should also ask visitors to provide the necessary COVID-related information such as recent travel or potential symptoms. Consider taking advantage of new software that helps offices digitize check-in and centralise information. 
  • Plan a phased return to on-site work: If possible, allow employees to get back to the office in phases, depending on their situation or roles. Also, make sure to effectively manage the moments that matter most to them such as their first day back in the workplace and their first team meeting.
  • Ensure you have a contingency plan: Employees want to feel confident that their employer has a plan should a new surge in infections occur. So clarify what the triggers and responses will be in a contingency plan and communicate it to workers.
  • Support employees’ mental health: HR leaders can play a key role in supporting the mental health of employees. Emphasise the company’s concern for their psychological well-being and take the necessary measures to help reduce their uncertainties and stress. These steps could include listening to their concerns, checking in with them, and making sure they know what resources the company offers such as on-site daycare facilities. Training managers and encouraging open discussions about mental health are also important. 
  • Explain why a return to office is necessary: It may not be necessary or appropriate to share every detail about the transition plan with employees. However, they’ll appreciate honesty about why they’re required back in the office. So explain the rationale behind the decision to workers. Also, try to provide hard data to support the reasoning. And connect the “why” to the organisation’s vision to inspire them to bring their best to work.
  • Communicate return-to-office plans ahead of time: You should communicate the company’s plans for returning to the office ahead of time, including important dates, new guidelines, and the options available. This helps them transition more smoothly to office work.
  • Take a personalised approach: You should think beyond one-size-fits-all approaches to how people work. It’s important that you help your staff structure their day based on individualised plans—of course as long as they are reasonable. The reason is employees may need new approaches to work routines that they have lost. 
  • Communicate efficiently, consistently, and transparently: All decisions, developments, and policies about returning to the office should be communicated to workers in the best and most transparent way possible and at the earliest opportunity.  
  • Adapt: Acknowledge that returning to the physical workplace isn’t a return to the old ways of working. So adapt organisation-wide policies and practices to meet the evolving demands of the new normal. 
  • Empower workers with work flexibility: Create a favorable environment for employees by offering flexible work arrangements whenever and wherever possible. This is especially important during the initial phase of their return to the office. 
  • Ensure employee confidentiality: Trust matters more than ever these days. When it comes to health checks and medical records, make sure to protect employee privacy. Consider creating a privacy policy with the help of a legal expert to be able to balance worker privacy with legitimate and necessary data collection for health and safety purposes. 
  • Start with essential travel only: Business travel during the pandemic can be stressful. So companies should determine if a trip is essential and review all travel restrictions before requiring employees to travel for work. 
  • Make informed decisions about return-to-office costs: Businesses can estimate the costs associated with returning to in-person work more accurately by carrying out an internal survey to find out employees’ needs, preferences, expectations, and concerns.
  • Lead by example: Leaders are role models and employees look to them, especially during a crisis. As an HR leader, you should help set an example for others by behaving in ways that are consistent with the values and practices that you’re promoting. 
  • Create a vibrant company culture: Many companies are only focused on the more immediate challenges of re-opening such as health and safety. But keeping employees’ spirits up is also very important. So leaders should help make the office a pleasant and welcoming place for employees through team-building activities, incentives, recognition programs, and similar measures.

Importance of employee feedback 

The measures mentioned above are all crucial to ease the transition back to the office, but they can only be implemented effectively if employee feedback is obtained and taken seriously. 

The reason is you can’t make assumptions in a vacuum about the concerns and challenges facing employees and potential ways to address them. 

Despite the importance of feedback in the workplace, there’s a serious gap between employee voice and employer action. 

If not addressed, this disconnect can disengage workers, increase turnover, and negatively impact business performance.

A recent survey shows that the vast majority (86%) of employees feel people in their company are not heard fairly or equally. 

According to the survey, employees aren’t feeling heard when it comes to issues that matter most to them during the return-to-the-office transition. And remote workers are concerned that their opinion won’t be taken into consideration within the hybrid way of working. 

To make the most of employee feedback, there are several issues that you as an HR professional should take into consideration, including creating a psychologically safe environment, finding efficient ways to collect feedback, and acting on it. 

Promoting psychological safety 

Promoting psychological safety is the first step in making employees feel welcome to share information, contribute ideas, and report mistakes. 

Gallup has found that creating a psychologically safe environment can reduce turnover by 27% and increase productivity by 12%.

Allowing anonymous feedback can help make sharing one’s opinion a more pleasant and less stressful experience. 

Many employees, as a Forbes study shows, don’t feel comfortable reporting issues for fear of repercussion. 

Forbes says 21% of workers who have witnessed an issue in their workplace haven’t reported it and that 74% would be more inclined to provide feedback if it was truly anonymous.

Anonymous feedback can also help reduce bias on the recipient end when analysing feedback. 

Collecting feedback 

To ensure steady growth for your organisation, you as an HR leader should think about ways to obtain employee feedback and get ahead of any issues before they arise or become a major problem. 

Here are some best practices to consider, especially through the transition back to the office.  

  • Create a detailed plan for how you will go about collecting employee feedback. 
  • Provide different feedback channels for employees so that they can use the one that is most convenient for them. 
  • Be where they are. Social media has created a public platform for individuals to tell their stories publicly and directly. So it’s important that you listen to what they say on these platforms about their experience at work.
  • Come up with creative strategies to increase employee engagement in the workplace as it encourages feedback and reporting. Employees will be more interested in sharing their views when they feel included and invested. 
  • Use an employee experience survey to collect the most meaningful data.
  • Develop short, easy-to-answer questions that tap into the experience of return-to-work employees. 
  • Tailor your surveys to your defined target group. You should make all employees in different departments and positions feel that their unique needs, expectations, and challenges matter.
  • Share all surveys with managers first. Their approval can help increase employee trust and response rates. 
  • Avoid including sensitive questions in your surveys that may influence workers’ willingness to participate. 
  • Ensure that your surveys are distributed via channels that all employees have access to. 
  • Have a plan and set a timeframe for responding to the feedback you receive. 

Fortunately, technology has made it much easier to not only receive employee feedback more quickly and efficiently but to get deeper insights into their experience.  

By replacing legacy feedback systems, contactless feedback solutions can help improve employee engagement by making it safe, simple, and enjoyable for people to provide feedback. This eventually results in higher employee satisfaction and further growth of the company. 

Act on feedback

Studies show that more companies are recognizing the importance of seeking employee feedback. 

Three in five employees (60%) surveyed recently by Achievers reported their company has sought feedback on at least one of the following issues: 

  • How to improve the employee experience (60%)
  • How to improve company culture during the pandemic (54%)
  • Remote and hybrid work preferences after the pandemic (52%)
  • How to improve inclusion and diversity (48%)
  • How to get involved with social and racial justice issues that are important to employees (44%) 

However, many employees reported “little to no action” based on the feedback they offer. Nearly one in five (19%) say their organisation is “horrible” at acting on feedback and never does anything with it. 

Businesses will risk losing their employees for good if they fail to make the necessary changes based on the opinions of their staff. 

The HR can help the leadership make sure employees’ input is taken into account and reflected in tangible actions. 

For best results, analyse the information available to get actionable insights and use survey findings to develop testable hypotheses and run experiments. 

Also, clearly communicate the actions taken based on the feedback received. This will tell employees that their opinion counts and will encourage them to continue sharing their views.

The path ahead 

Company executives have been announcing return-to-the-office plans to mixed reception. 

When Apple CEO Tim Cook sent out a company-wide memo telling employees they would be required to be back in the office, some of them weren’t happy and pushed back with their own letter. 

This is just one example that proves returning to on-site work is quickly turning into a backlash. 

That’s why it’s crucial for HR professionals to help the leadership team at their organisation understand what employees really want, come up with plans and policies that meet their expectations, and implement them successfully. 

Instead of imposing decisions on employees, businesses should engage transparently with them, hear them out, and involve them in the decision-making process. 

So take employee feedback seriously or risk losing your top talent.

Please share this article if it was helpful or interesting