Employees Say These 4 Things Can Ease the Transition Back to the Office

Jul 12, 2021

Some employees are resisting going back to the office. But these team members are ready, and think these strategies will help make for a smooth transition.

Companies are making plans to return to the office. Staffing firm LaSalle Network’s Office Re-Entry Index found that most CEOs surveyed believed employees would be back in the office by the fall.

But it won’t be the same old workstations and water coolers. The Willis Towers Watson 2021 Employee Experience Survey found that more than nine in 10 employers (94%) said that providing a better employee experience was a top priority for them. That number was just over half (54%) pre-pandemic. Just 13% say the pandemic has receded enough to end temporary pandemic-related policies and programs, but 59% think they can do so this fall. The rest are holding out for 2022 or beyond. And most are expecting a hybrid workforce to be the norm.

“What people want is a high-performing employee experience. So, that means when they arrive at the workplace—whether that’s virtual, remote, or, in some form, hybrid work arrangement—they want that experience, the sum, essentially, of all the touchpoints, and the moments that matter between an individual and their organization, to be as high performing as possible,” says Andy Walker, managing director, Willis Towers Watson.

Leaders who have taken a strong stand about most employees coming back to the office full-time have faced employees’ ire. Employees cite concerns about safety, loss of freedom, and the hit their productivity will take when they have to commute again, among others. But there are some employees who think their employers are hitting the right notes as they orchestrate the return of their workforces. Here are some of the ways they say employers are getting it right:

Mitigating Risk

At real estate technology company HqO, leaders have put their money where their mouths are when it comes to safety and minimizing risk. The company subleased an additional floor to give employees more space to spread out to accommodate physical distancing. Dividers were added between desks, and the HR team marked the floor around the office to help employees arrange seating and maintain safe distances. The company set capacity limits and worked with the landlord to get exclusive use of additional space if needed. Signs are posted about best practices for safety. And, when restrictions were still in place, HqO subsidized parking for those who felt uncomfortable taking public transportation.

“[Our HR operations team] anticipated the needs and is trying to help ease some of that natural fear and anxiety of, ‘Okay, what am I coming back to?’ And especially then there were still so many unknowns,” says Shelly Just, team lead, implementation management at HqO. “HqO has been really intentional and genuine about ensuring everyone felt comfortable enough to come back to the office and ensuring the guidelines we put in place were respected by everyone who was choosing to come into the office.”

Listening and Phasing Reentry

Prane Wang, head of market development at medical scheduling platform Zocdoc, can’t wait to get back to the office. She started at Zocdoc during the pandemic, so she is eager to meet her coworkers in person. “I miss in-person interaction and spontaneous catch-ups that bring people closer in a workplace. So I can’t wait to see everyone in real life and find out how tall everyone is,” she says.

She’s a little concerned about commuting and riding the subway, but says she’s confident in the company’s reentry approach for two reasons: First, she feels like leaders are listening to employee concerns and needs. For months, company leaders have been asking them how they feel about returning to the office, remote work, and the flexibility they want and need.

But she especially appreciates Zocdoc’s pilot plan for phased reentry to a hybrid model, which she calls a “three-parter”:

  1. In the U.S., 40 employees have signed up to be in the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the days the company encouraged to give them some shared in-office time. The company will offer a number of “flex desks.” Small numbers of employees who aren’t part of the pilot program will be able to sign up to be in the office on those days with their co-workers.

  2. The second phase, which Wang calls the “encouraged phase,” starts on September 13. New York and Phoenix offices will be open five days per week. Employees will still be encouraged—not required—to be in the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

  3. In 2022, U.S. offices will be open five days per week. Employees will be encouraged to go into the office three days per week.

It’s a “pull, not push” approach, Wang says. “They’re offering all of the perks that existed before, like free lunch and snacks, cold brew, and a nicely designed space that will likely be a nice change of scenery from everyone’s homes.”

Supporting Employee Finances and Mental Health

Online marketplace Etsy made working at home a little easier with a $100-per-month stipend to help employees offset the costs of working from home. The company also subsidized ergonomically correct home office furniture to help ensure that working from home was more comfortable. “I can open up a help desk ticket, and have someone consult with me about the ergonomics of my home office setup,” says Christina Goldschmidt, head of product design.

Now that employees are heading back to the office, the company is focusing on employees’ mental health. Goldschmidt helped co-found the employee resource group for mental health needs. “Etsy has always had all these amazing employee resource groups, bringing about a whole bunch of different affinities,” she says. When employees were surveyed, it was clear that they needed mental health support, she says.

Goldshmidt says she was “vocal” about the need and the company supported creating a support structure, “and a place where we can actually create content and programming and a safe space for people to have dialogue and support and actually have executive team sponsorship for mental health,” she says. She feels it’s going to be an important resource as employees head back to the office this fall. The resource group is also tackling burnout and advocated for an additional day off on the July 4 holiday to give employees more of a break.

Communicating Clearly

Kate Collins, the digital project manager at marketing firm Postali, started going back to the office in June. The leadership team gave the small office—roughly 20 people—two months’ notice before opening its doors. They were fully in-person before the pandemic but have transitioned to a hybrid model. Collins says she feels confident going back because of the communication, which has laid out exactly what the plan was as well as the precautions and safety measures the company is taking. “They shared that our office was deep cleaned ahead of our first day, and our chief of staff created helpful ‘Return to Office’ documentation around parking, office security, conference room etiquette, etc.,” she says.

Collins says that, because the office is so small, she knows everyone’s vaccination status because her coworkers have been forthcoming about the topic. “We are trying to be careful about shared items. We’re not really doing shared snacks anymore or shared meals. But besides that, we’re pretty much back to normal,” she says.

By Gwen Moran