The Roots of an Effective Return-to-Office Policy

Some workers are loudly pushing back against calls to come back to the office in person. Leaders’ message to them should be rooted in needs, not myths.

Organizations have been instituting return-to-the-office policies since last fall, but they’re still having a tough time encouraging their workers to get behind them.

The latest example is Apple, which last month began winding back its pandemic-era work-from-home option, asking employees to begin coming in one day a week and ramping up to three days a week by the end of May. But even that gradual approach is unsettling workers. Last week, Fortune reported on a survey conducted last month in which 76 percent of Apple employees said they disliked the policy move. Moreover, a majority—56 percent—said they were looking to leave the company specifically because of the return-to-office plan.

I strongly doubt a mass exodus from the tech giant is in the offing. Even in the tech world, where competition for talent is intense, shifting employers is disruptive, and there’s no reason to believe that the majority of competing companies won’t ask their workers to return to the office too, if they haven’t already. For instance, in March Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said employees could be “working from home full-time forever,” but new owner Elon Musk snarked at that policy in a deleted tweet, suggesting the company HQ should be turned into a homeless shelter because “no one shows up anyway.” 

But whichever way work-from-home plans wind up going, it’s important to take that sizable expression of discomfort seriously. In April, I wrote about the need for organizations to be flexible about their return-to-office plans, and that means doing more than simply asking employees to come back. Leaders need to communicate why they think it’s important, and leaders can’t lapse into vagaries about the importance of “belonging” and “collaboration.”

A majority of Apple employees—56 percent—said they were looking to leave the company because of its return-to-office plan.

That’s because there’s reason to believe that remote work hasn’t put a dent in those things. Writing in Time last month, Future Forum executive Brian Elliott points to surveys showing that workers reported a stronger sense of belonging in a remote-work environment, and that serendipitous brainstorming around the watercooler isn’t as common or influential as leaders tend to believe. Virtual collaboration tools are abundant, Elliott argues; what’s lacking is the effort required to implement them.

“When executives describe their desire to bring people back to the office, they usually mean getting back to pre-pandemic standards and rituals,” Elliott writes. Rituals is the key word there. Leaders may have valid reasons for wanting to get teams back into the office, if the work has physical responsibilities or the kinds of interactions that are hard to replicate virtually. But “rituals” are just another way of saying “but we’ve always done it that way,” which was an unhealthy organizational mindset well before COVID-19.

Again, I don’t think large numbers of Apple employees are telling CEO Tim Cook they’re ready to walk unless they become permanent work-from-home staffers. But they’re certainly sending a clear message that every leader should pay attention to: If you want people to change how they work, you need to be prepared to tell them why.

What has your return-to-work policy looked like, and how have employees responded? Share your experiences in the comments. 

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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