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Return to Office Strategy: How to Foster Culture & Flexibility

Creating a Successful Return to Office Strategy: 5 Proven Tips

By Mariah Collins, SHRM-CP on Jul 02, 2024
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If you’re still getting clear on your return to office strategy, you’re not alone, and you’re certainly not behind. Over the past few years, small to mid-sized businesses have explored a range of working models, but have been met with resistance when requiring employees to return to work. 

The trouble, it seems, has come from the perceived loss of autonomy from remote-capable workers who grew accustomed to the flexibility that fully remote work provided during the pandemic.

In the years following the ease of restrictions surrounding social distancing and masking requirements, employers have sought to bring employees back into the office and preserve the workplace culture they worked hard to build. But until recently, there has been little information available about just how (and when) to implement a return to office strategy that won’t cause workers to start looking for alternative options. 

Striking a balance between flexibility and the preservation of in-office culture may seem tricky, but with a well-thought-out return to office strategy informed by data (and HR experts), it doesn’t have to be. In this post, we’ll explore five tried-and-true ideas for bringing employees back in person while protecting the flexibility they value so highly. 

RELATED: Here Are the Best Data-Driven Arguments for a Return to Office >>

Why Now is the Best Time to Devise a Flexible Return to Office Strategy 

Since 2019, Gallup has studied various indicators related to hybrid work, a model that has exploded in popularity post-pandemic. In February of 2024, 54% of full-time American workers who could work in a hybrid manner did so. Each year since the pandemic, exclusively remote work has fallen further and further out of favor, and as its replacement, the hybrid work model has shone. 

Early this year, it was reported that only 20% of remote-capable U.S. workers showed up to the office each of five weekdays, and only 27% never came in at all.

Currently, over half of remote-capable employees are embracing the hybrid model, and most employers are offering hybrid work arrangements. Data points strongly toward the fact that if an employer can offer hybrid work, they should do so. With four years of post-pandemic data available to us, now is the perfect time for employers to confidently implement a well-studied and vetted return to office strategy. 

hybrid workforce

5 Ideas for Implementing a Flexible Return to Office Strategy

1.  Coordinate overlapping in-office days ahead of time 

When employees say they want autonomy in their working days and hours, they don’t always mean they want free rein over when, where and how they work. Sometimes, they simply want their time and work-life balance to be respected, so they can plan out their other responsibilities accordingly. 

Managers who’d like to implement mandatory working hours and days should be careful to give team members as much advanced notice of in-person requirements as possible. If the manager or team prefers not to stick to a predictable schedule from week to week (i.e., Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 9 and 5), they should attempt to provide at least a week of notice of a planned all-team in-office day. Plentiful notice gives employees the ability to plan for the obligations they have outside of work, and can go a long way to preserve the feeling of autonomy. 

2.  Provide autonomy in the choice of remote days 

When possible, allow employees to select their own in-office days and hours. You may decide to set specified ranges for in-office days or set a mandatory minimum (i.e., 2 days per week, or 50% of days each month) as part of your return to office strategy. 

Employers may wish to vary the structure of in-office requirements by tenure. For example, employers can require employees with less than one year of tenure to observe stricter in-office requirements than those with greater tenure. From an HR compliance perspective, however, employers seeking to vary any kind of requirement should always work with an expert to ensure they’re avoiding a potential disparate impact in the eyes of the law. 

RELATED: Top Considerations for Implementing Return to Office Mandates >>

3.  “Layer” your office space to create different environments 

Your employees may be reluctant to return to the office for many reasons, one of which could be the relative comfort (and privacy) they’ve experienced while working from home. Your company, on the other hand, wants to prioritize the collaboration and information-sharing that comes along with working face-to-face in a shared space. 

Balance these interests by “layering” the available workspace options within your office. If your office has traditionally been set up as an open-concept environment which is common among start-ups, start thinking about how you can incorporate options for privacy.

While it can be cost-prohibitive to offer each employee their own office, having a few “hot spot” offices available for reservations throughout the day can be a fix. Rotating, reservable office spaces help employees ensure that they can take sensitive meetings on their own, while still working primarily within the broader open office space. 

4.  Keep promoting your culture in remote settings 

As you’re crafting your return to office strategy, keep in mind that connection should be unconditional. In other words, your positive company culture doesn’t start and end with in-person experiences. 

You have several options for boosting and maintaining a strong company culture whether employees are in-office or at home. Consider options such as remote happy hours, virtual interactive group training sessions, and other “events” and opportunities for collaboration that don’t require physical proximity. 

RELATED: Is Your Team Remote? You Still Need Workers' Comp for Remote Employees >>

5.  Focus on relationships, not requirements 

When it comes to striking a balance between a strong in-office culture and a prioritization of employee flexibility, your return to office strategy should be focused on relationships, not requirements.

Ultimately, a return to office strategy is a set of rules and guidelines communicated to your employees via certain messaging tactics. As you’re designing that messaging, keep these considerations in mind: 

  • Focus on the good

    Place an emphasis on the benefits employees will reap in returning to the office, even on a hybrid basis. 
  • Take a friendly tone

    Use a friendly, culture-first tone in your messaging. Avoid titling your messaging with words like “mandate” or placing too heavy a focus on consequences for violations. 
  • Keep a feedback loop open 

    Remind employees of where they can turn if they have feedback, questions, or concerns. Provide direct contact information of at least two higher-ups with say-so on the policy, like HR reps. If an employee has a disability that prevents them from returning to the office, they should feel comfortable disclosing that in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

gen z in the workplace

Axcet HR: Your Partner for Building and Sustaining a Great Company Culture 

If you need help piecing together a return to office strategy that will work for your unique company culture, you can count on the employee relations experts at Axcet HR Solutions At Axcet, we’re proud to work with our clients to understand the details of what makes their workplace unique. Then, we help to craft a return to office strategy that has the ability to deliver real ROI. 

The experienced HR consultants at Axcet HR Solutions have the employee relations know-how to guide you toward success. From HR compliance, to workplace safety, to recruitment and retention, Axcet is your certified professional employer organization. Let us take care of the HR details, so you can focus on growing and scaling your core business. 

Interested in learning more about Axcet can help? Schedule a consultation with our experienced consultants today. 

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