The debate over a return to the office is going strong. While some employees are eager to reconnect with colleagues in person, others feel forced into a decision that does not meet their needs.

Leaders must recognize that over the past two years, the remote work environment has unveiled new realities and opportunities for employees and organizations alike. Convincing people to pivot back and return to the office will require a well-thought-out plan, tact, a proof of concept and a very good reason.

Two Key Mistakes to Avoid

The 2022 Work Trend Index from Microsoft showed that only 28 percent of companies have clear plans in place for why and when employees should go to the office. Leaders who make a hasty decision to ask workers back to an in-office setting without a plan run the risk of making two key mistakes: forcing the issue and neglecting the employee experience. 

1. Forcing the Issue

While companies may want employees back in the office so everyone is in one place, forcing the issue isn’t beneficial. “The biggest mistake is not recognizing some people are happier — and more effective — working from home, at least some of the time,” said Cornelius Fichtner, president of Orange, Calif.-based OSP International LLC, a provider of training for project management professionals. The fact that some employees prefer working from home is well-documented, and companies that ignore that may find themselves with disgruntled employees who end up quitting. 

To avoid this, businesses need to be open to change. “Ensuring a smooth transition requires teams and management to be flexible. There needs to be an element of personal choice at play when making these decisions,” said Scott Chao, chief marketing officer at Dallas-based Appspace

2. Neglecting the Employee Experience

The commute to and from work is often talked about as one of the key difference-makers between working remotely and going to the office. However, it’s not the only facet of the employee experience that leaders should consider.

“If your employee invests the extra effort — and it’s not just the commute time, it is also the gasoline expense, the time spent getting ready, etc. If they do all this, and they return to a weak experience, they are going to become another statistic in the Great Resignation,” said Nadir Ali, CEO of Palo Alto, Calif-based Inpixon.

Related Article: Is a Return to the Office Right for Your Company?

Learning Opportunities

Tips for a Smooth Return to the Office

Leaders who intend on asking employees to return to the office can follow four strategies to help ensure a smooth transition. 

Gather Feedback

Before setting any plan in motion, leaders should gather feedback from employees about what a return to the office means to them. If the majority of workers are against the idea, it may be wise to consider alternatives — or risk having to rebuild the bulk of the workforce. Talking honestly and openly with employees also helps leaders iron out the specifics of the plan, such as whether the office should required five days a week or fewer. Building a space where employees feel valued for their input and opinion is key to an engaged workforce.

Make a Plan

This may seem simplistic, but some companies are calling for a return to the office by a determined date but with no further strategy in mind. Rather than simply announcing a date for when employees are expected back at their desk, leaders may want to consider setting clear expectations, implementing a transitionary period, offering incentives or providing a certain level of flexibility to account for other constraints that weren't there before the pandemic, such as sudden daycare or school closures.

Introduce an Employee Experience App

One way to assist with a smooth return to the office is to use an employee experience app to improve morale, boost productivity and enhance safety protocols. For instance, Ali said, a staff member can reserve a socially distanced desk or a workspace near a specific colleague. Other features of the app can also include an option to order food, book a workspace and access office buildings. 

Launch Team Building Exercises

Companies can motivate employees to return the office by including team-building experiences. “This is something that we’ve implemented internally," said Chao. "While we’re extremely flexible depending on team choice, creating a collaborative space that is available through space reservation seems to have been most effective." 

Whatever the intent or strategy, companies shouldn’t force a return to the office without first gathering feedback, preparing accordingly, communicating openly and honestly, and improving the employee experience as they transition back.