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Redefine ‘Where’ Hybrid Work Takes Place Before Returning Back to Office Life

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique opportunity to reevaluate not only your physical office space but your mindset as a leader regarding the future of work. With so many changes happening in the workplace, it's important that you have an organized back to office plan—regardless of if it may be temporary or long-term.

What is a Return-to-Work Program?

Historically, return to the office or return to work programs are plans that allow workers back into the building after a natural disaster or an accident. It includes guidelines to ensure the safety and security of their employees before returning to normal operations. It can also refer to a plan for an employee who took a long hiatus from work due to various reasons.

Nowadays, however, most return to the office programs refer to specific guidelines that companies follow, so they can safely and successfully bring their employees back to the office in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. These plans typically include safety protocols, communication and training, and even back to office incentives.

Office occupancy levels have been steadily increasing since January 2021 and hit an all-time high in December 2021. In fact, most companies planned to go back to office after Covid in January 2022.

office occupancy levels

However, due to the widespread of the Omicron variant, it resulted in a return to the office delay. For example, Google planned to return to their campus on Jan. 10, but had been pushed further into 2022.

Return-to-Office Guidelines

Considering the unpredictability of the virus and its effects on business operations, leaders need to rethink return to office guidelines. Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, shared in a CNBC article: “This pandemic has taught us is that flexibility is definitely needed." But, what about the big question, is returning back to the office Covid safe?

In addition to being focused on a return date to the office, it's best to focus on providing a variety of flexible options to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your employees.

Microsoft has created one of the best flexible (and sensible) guidelines for returning to the office.

return to office guidelines
Image from Blogs.Microsoft.com

The purpose of the six stages, is not to try and answer the question, “When should we go back to the office?” The question is, “Where should the work take place?”

Kurt DelBene, Microsoft Vice President Executive, wrote about their philosophy and approach:

"We soon discovered that we needed to develop a return to work site strategy that could account for constantly changing public health conditions and government guidance in order to keep our employees and communities safe. We also needed to drive a consistent approach across geographies, creating a unified COVID-19 response effort within the company."

This strategy works with any Microsoft campus around the world and is adjusted accordingly depending on local factors.If you’re creating a similar guideline, here are a few questions to consider:

  • If you’re operating fully remote now, are you planning to switch to a more hybrid setup?
  • If yes, what does your hybrid workplace look like?
  • Is your end goal to have everyone back to office like?

Depending on your answers, your guidelines will vary. And if the main goal is to eventually have everyone return to office life, there are a few challenges to keep a lookout on.

Challenges of Coming Back to the Office

First, you must answer the question, “Do employees want to return to office environments?” The truth is more than 40% of employees in the US would rather forget going back to the office and quit their jobs if they were forced to return to the office full-time based on a Harvard Business Review employee survey.

After experiencing a fully remote or hybrid work setup, it’s hard for employees to commit to return to office ways full-time again.

Apart from the mood around returning to the office, some of the other challenges of coming back to the office are:

  • Contact Tracing - Depending on the country or city where you’re operating, contact tracing can either be a breeze or a nightmare.
  • Space Capacity - Social distancing may have reduced your desk spaces, so it’s critical to coordinate who’s working in the office. Luckily, there are tools like ‘Where’ that make it extremely easy (and fun) to plan desk space and social gatherings.
  • Fear of Getting the Virus - Despite the safety protocols, the truth is people are still fearful of coming back to the office and working 8 hours a day, especially when masks are required all the time.

Refusing a Back to Office Plan

Due to the challenges mentioned above, some employees have been asking, “Can you refuse the conditions of a back to office plan?”. The first place to start is by looking at the legal and practical considerations for the employer and employees. Each situation depends on the country where the business is registered and the type of contract the employee has.

For example, in the US (and in most countries), an employer can’t terminate an employee if they refuse to return to the office because they have underlying medical conditions. Ideally, both parties—the employer and the employee—should work out all possible solutions and options.

Another thing to consider is the flexible work policies in each country. More and more countries are now updating or creating legislation around flexible work.

The bottom line is—if the company forces everyone to be back in the office full time and this is not what you want—you may refuse by finding another company that provides the level of flexibility you want.

Back-to-the-Office Incentives

For those who are considering going back to the office but are still on the fence, leaders should consider practical back to the office incentives to encourage their employees.

For example, if most of your employees are parents, offering an expansive childcare benefits package would be a great way to encourage them to go back to the office. For example, JP Morgan Chase provides their employees access to backup and full-time childcare.

back to office incentives

Covering basic necessities such as parking and food can also go a long way. According to the New York Times, “The New York Stock Exchange has arranged for discounted parking. Goldman Sachs offers free lunch in the cafeteria.”

For companies that have adopted a hybrid or fully remote setup, they have redesigned their office spaces to inspire in-person collaboration. Dropbox even got rid of their individual desks and reinvested in extraordinary cafeteria and meeting rooms.

👋 Bring your hybrid team together

There’s a better way to schedule your days in the office...right from Slack!

A Question of Where Not When

Without a doubt, in 2022 and beyond, companies that have flexible back to office guidelines will continue to lead the future of work. It’s not enough to decide when to bring everyone back to the office. This date may never come. More importantly, if companies truly want to retain top talent and have the competitive advantage, redefining where the work is taking place is a priority.