Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, only 6% of American workers were in fully remote positions. When Covid hit the United States in March 2020 and offices began to close their doors, employers were scrambling to set up remote capabilities for their employees.
By April, the office occupancy rate nationwide declined to 14.6%. All of a sudden, it seemed every professional job in America was now fully remote. And, while it’s true that there has been a high amount of turnover in all positions – the peak unemployment rate was 14.8% in April 2020 and effects of The Great Resignation are still being felt – companies have been hiring and rehiring for a multitude of open positions for more than a year now. Since by March 2022 the office occupancy rate had only rebounded to 38%, many of these new hires have been interviewed and onboarded completely remotely.
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The Impending “Return” to the Office
Despite the slow return to in-person work thus far, some companies are pushing to come back to the office at least a few days per week. Research from Gartner shows that more than 90% of employers are planning to adopt a hybrid model this year. But they also predict that some major employers will change their minds and bring employees back to the office full-time. A recent survey from Microsoft revealed that around 50% of leaders want their employees to return to working five days each week in the office.
Large companies – like Goldman Sachs – are pushing for a full-time return to in-office work due to high turnover and culture shifts. But returning to the office “for culture reasons” isn’t necessarily going to persuade their employees to come back. Inc magazine reports that 79% of employees surveyed don’t feel their company’s culture has improved since returning in person. That’s an overwhelming majority who feels just as connected remotely as they do in person. Companies demanding workers return in person full-time are likely to get pushback.
So what does this mean for those who were hired while their company was fully remote? What are the implications of “returning” to an office they’ve never been to? And what can employers do to ease this transition?
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Easing the Office Transition for Fully Remote Workers
After years of being isolated at home, even employees who used to work full-time in the office may have a stressful return transition. For those who were onboarded remotely, their lack of a frame of reference for office culture can be particularly confusing. Add this lack of direction to their likely hesitance at leaving a home office environment, and it could be a recipe for disaster.
To ease the transition and ensure a smooth “return” to the office, employers should consider what their employees will be giving up by coming in. A vast majority of respondents worldwide say that flexible schedules are extremely important. Of course, each company must consider their customers and balance employee flexibility with providing quality service. But, where reasonable, employers should consider flexible options for workers with job functions that can be performed outside the normal 9-5 hours.
Beyond a perceived loss of work/life balance, some employees may even be anxious about socializing face-to-face after so much isolation. Newer hires who were brought on while fully remote will also be meeting their colleagues for the first time in person, which will require additional adjustment. Encourage teams to go to lunch together and consider building in time to engage in team-building activities to get to know each other better. And don’t forget the office tour for those who are completely new to the environment!
Time management may be a new struggle for some employees as they attempt to fit in commutes and other challenges during their previously streamlined days. Encourage communication around juggling priorities and the balance of workloads, and offer time management training where needed.
Above all, the most positive thing employers can do for their employees is to invite – and listen to – feedback. Anonymous surveys are the best way to collect real, unbiased feedback from workers. Include questions about returning to the office, how they are adapting to changes, if their benefits needs are different (for example, childcare expenses), and more. By listening to each other, companies and their employees can find a way to accommodate both the needs of the company and the comfort of its workers.