The New Rules of Return-To-Office


By now, you’ve probably heard the stories: the manager who relaxed the dress code to include sneakers in an effort to lure his employees back, or the small firm that offered free car washes once a week. And then there’s the tech behemoth that’s hosting a private concert with Lizzo.

For all the efforts organizations are making to bring people back to the office, few are getting the results they wanted. In fact, what they’re seeing is quite the opposite. Data from WFH Research shows 22% of workers never want to return to the office, 31% want to go back full-time, and 46% want a mix of hybrid options.

These results show how deeply rooted patterns in our brains have changed. Well-established schemas – mental maps that form when habits are ingrained in our long-term memory bank – can be hard to break. After more than two years of remote work, it can seem uncomfortable to return to previously normal mental maps, like navigating a commute or squeezing our feet into dress shoes. When we travel the same course over a couple of years, our brains naturally course-correct our behaviors into the natural grooves where we know it’s safe to operate. Go outside those grooves, like a wagon on the Oregon Trail, and you’re likely to find the journey bumpy and uncomfortable.

It’s no wonder, then, that returning to the office after two years fills some people with uncertainty. Research shows this can cause anxiety and trepidation, and it often makes us assume the worst. When we don’t know what’s waiting for us in a new or unfamiliar setting, our brains steer us away from things that could harm our social safety. That physiological response to avoid potential harm – like an office filled with people we may no longer feel comfortable around – is stronger than the one that sends us toward potential reward, like a Lizzo concert.

Knowing this, here are four things leaders can do to make any version of return-to-work more successful.

  1. Don’t make it mandatory.

While it’s likely that many bosses can’t think of any other way to bring people back, research shows that making something mandatory quite literally is the worst thing they can do. Mandates remove our ability to choose, throwing our brains into a threat state that makes us feel more frustrated, less productive, and less collaborative.

If you aren’t able to skirt a return-to-office mandate, it’s crucial to offer other forms of autonomy, such as allowing workers to choose their own schedules or giving them options as to when they hold meetings. Any form of autonomy, especially when it’s unexpected, can help soften the blow of a return-to-office requirement.

Rather than offering swag giveaways or free lunches, try to prioritize opportunities that remind employees what they loved about working in the office pre-pandemic — like getting together for a happy hour at the corner pub or swapping stories about kids, pets or travel over coffee.

  1. Recognize that productivity may decrease.

Although conventional wisdom suggests that employees can’t accomplish as much work amid the distractions of pets, housework, spouses or kids, many companies were surprised to find productivity actually increased when employees worked from home. For example, in a recent survey of 800 employers, 94% said that productivity was the same as or higher than before the pandemic, even with many employees working from home. Another survey of Fortune 500 executives indicates productivity was up as much as 13% in 2020 versus the same six-month period in 2019.

Possible explanations include less commuting time, fewer distractions (think gossipy coworkers), and increased autonomy. So even if your return-to-work plan goes off without a hitch, be prepared for a slight dip in productivity, at least in the short term as workers adjust. And remember – connectivity beats productivity when getting people back to the office.

  1. Use social rewards.

To motivate employees to return to the office after a long period of working remotely, consider the SCARF® Model, which outlines people’s basic social needs: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Individuals prioritize these needs differently, so employers should strive to appeal to them all. For example, for a person who values relatedness, simply being around coworkers they like is a strong motivator. Another employee who has enjoyed the increased autonomy that comes from working at home will appreciate hybrid opportunities and a flexible schedule.

  1. Be mindful of social anxieties.

Fear of the unknown and feelings of a lack of control are two of the biggest contributing factors to anxiety — both of which are abundant in return-to-office initiatives. After two years working remotely, we’ve developed a new set of comfortable habits and routines that can be hard to break. While some people may be ready to greet colleagues with a hug, others may still prefer to stay masked and distanced. To curb any health anxieties, be transparent about any COVID-related policies you have put in place to ensure individuals have the power to choose their own acceptable level of risk without judgment.

Moreover, the transition back to in-person social interactions could be overstimulating and exhausting because our social skills have atrophied. While working remotely, we missed out on things like small talk, maintaining eye contact, and watching people’s body language, which can be a lot to take in as we transition back to in-person meetings. Creating quiet spaces or having meeting-free hours may help give people space to take a break.

If you remember nothing else, keep in mind that the reentry to office life – in whatever form your organization chooses –  is a time of transition for everyone, and we all deserve a little grace as we adapt.

Authors: Laura Cassiday, Ph.D. , Jessica Lewis , Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T.

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