Why a Return-to-Office Plan Isn’t Just About the Office

As COVID numbers decline, more offices are bringing workers back. Leaders should expect some pushback, and make fresh plans to accommodate.

Call it normality anxiety: As COVID-19 numbers (knock wood) trend downward and more organizations call their workers back to the office, employees who’ve been working from home for much of the past two years have a new stressor. Because in the past two years, workers aren’t just going back to “normal”; they’re returning to an office carrying experiences of loss and frustration. 

Requests to return to the office raise issues around wellness, productivity, culture—and staff retention.

An article in The New York Times last week underscored the change in employees’ mental wellness as they prepare to return, and the need for employers to acknowledge it. “Some companies take the posture where they say: ‘We’re resilient. We’re all about business. That’s what we’re going to focus on,’” startup founder April Koh told the paper. “That’s just not the way to solve problems.”

Some numbers back up the concern. A McKinsey study from last year found that a third of employees who had returned to work said that it had a “negative impact on their mental health.” But employers are committed to a return: According to a recent report by the consultancy Protiviti, while 70 percent employers say they’ll embrace hybrid arrangements by 2030, a majority (57 percent) will mandate where and how employees work.

None of which is to say that employers shouldn’t be able to ask employees to come into the office, or that employees can’t adapt to it. But without acknowledging that the environment for workers has changed in the past two years, leaders could wind up in an unwanted clash of attitudes. As Protiviti’s Joe Kornik recently said at a Chief Executive webinar, “workers have more choice, more power, and certainly more flexibility than they’ve had in a long time, and maybe ever.” Requests to return to the office raise issues around wellness, productivity, and culture. More concretely, they raise issues around staff retention.

To that end, leaders should approach their return-to-office plan carefully, with a mind toward doing a lot of communicating and a lot of listening. A recent article from the association consultancy Sidecar Global notes that leaders ought to expect some pushback and requests for clarification. As Anne McCarthy noted: “Many people lost their jobs, experienced the death of loved ones to the virus, and coped with the daily anxiety of life amid a global pandemic with a mutating virus. In short, people see things differently now.”

And throughout the return process, employers should be ready to make more resources available—and to be able to talk about the process more openly. The usual corporate-speak won’t quite cut it this time around. As one HR chief told the Times, “We’re getting comfortable using words about feelings instead of just concrete business topics.”

In addition, leaders should try to rethink the one-size-fits all approach to the return-to-office plan. Rather, it can use this opportunity to see where in-office work thrives, and where it may be less necessary, and adjust accordingly. As the McKinsey report stated, “Going back to onsite work may drive engagement and effectiveness for some employees while hindering it in others; employers can design strategies that account for the needs of their diverse workforces.”

All of which is to say that a couple of the old-normal rules still apply to the new normal—specifically, be willing to listen and be willing to innovate. As Kornik put it, return-to-office isn’t a problem to solve but an opportunity to make the office more meaningful and productive. “If we do this right, we’re going to end up in better shape than we were pre-pandemic,” he said.

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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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