The Great Return: A Guide For Getting Employees Back To The Office

Last updated:
Nov 9, 2023
Commercial Real Estate


Hannah Feltham
Hannah Feltham

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Now that the pandemic is behind us, leaders are thinking about "The Great Return." The million-dollar question still on everybody's mind? How to best get employees back into the office.

So, what does the landscape currently look like?

The Property Council of Australia tracked occupancy levels until February of this year, and they appeared to be making a comeback nationwide: 

Opal Taps offs at the Sydney CBD correlate with this, showing a steady increase since February:

While offices have gradually become busier, occupancy still appears to be below pre-Covid levels and numerous employers have expressed their desire for their employees to return to in-person work. However, a noticeable "mismatch" is emerging between the expectations of employees and their employers.

The problem with a mandate

Back in 2022, a Twitter war between Tesla's Elon Musk and Atlassian's Scott Farquhar brought the issue of return-to-office mandates to the surface. Here, Musk warned that Tesla and SpaceX employees would lose their jobs if they did not return for a minimum of 40 hours a week. And Farquhar responded by saying it "Feels like something out of the 1950s," encouraging Musk's employees to apply for a job at Atlassian.

Naturally, whether unlimited working-from-home arrangements work for everybody remains a matter of contention amongst most executives. Many believe that simply mandating a return might lead to dissatisfaction or, worse, resignations - an even bigger headache in light of the labour shortage (with the national unemployment rate sitting at just 3.6%). 

And they're not wrong.

With real estate being a company's second-highest cost after salaries, it's only natural to want to see a return. However, many employers also believe that losing face time limits their teams ability to collaborate, share ideas and feed off one another's energy. Companies also lose the opportunity to differentiate their employment brand from their competitors.

However, now more than ever, employees are looking for flexibility, freedom and security in their work and work environment.

Many people are resisting the call back to their cubicles because they're worried, don't see the value of a return, view the office as a 'hassle' or believe themselves to be more productive from home. Another big factor is the rising cost of living, with the cost of commuting or renegotiating childcare cited as some of the main reasons for the reluctance.

On the other hand, those happy to return have been faced with empty offices and fewer amenities and are therefore not getting the same value out of the workplace.

Tips to entice staff back to the office

Solving the return-to-office dilemma is not easy, but if you're looking for ways to entice staff back to the office, try one or a combination of the tips below. 

Remember that your changes don't need to be big or expensive (a little creativity goes a long way!). They do, however, need to be meaningful. 

The workplace has evolved beyond being simply a place for task completion into a space where people go to build on psychological security, innovation, and connections. So, put careful thought and planning into the experience you want to create (p.s it needs to go beyond a welcome-back gift or free lunch).

‍1. Ask employees what they want

What's the number one way to encourage employees to come back? Ensure they are 'heard' and included in the transition.

Before jumping back to how things were, take a step back and listen to your employees via one-on-one meetings or company-wide surveys. 

Note concerns, discuss what your company is doing right and what needs to be improved. Above all else, stay considerate, don't make assumptions and keep in mind that 1 in 4 employees would rather get a root canal than return to full-time office work.

woman in listening pose illustrating listening to employees when thinking about how to get them back to the office

2. Communicate expectations

Communication is a two-way street. While listening to employee feedback, you should also stay clear about your reasoning and expectations. Be transparent and explain to your employees the value of having them back in the office, why you're making certain decisions and how you intend to make the experience meaningful.

3. Reconsider the work environment

Before asking your employees to come back, take a look at your office. Is it an environment that your staff will want to come back to? Is it conducive to fostering the benefits you're promising? Will it make your team feel valued?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then consider what needs to change to make your office a place your employees want to be. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Provide standing desks and ergonomic chairs
  • Invest in plants or other decorative features
  • Create new break spaces or collaboration areas
  • Invest in a new fit-out
  • Relocate to an entirely new space that's better located or more exciting and inviting (talk to us if this ends up being your strategy)

4. Remember that one size doesn’t fit all

Implementing a blanket return-to-office disregards the unique requirements of different departments, teams, and individuals. For instance, while in-person collaboration might be essential for the sales team, the IT team may get more done when they work remotely.

Leaders should be empowered to tailor working arrangements to optimise team productivity and lend themselves to team-specific demands.

5. Create in-person social and learning opportunities

Now more than ever, people are looking for social connections and professional opportunities. And it's one of the big drawcards of the office. 

However, managers shouldn’t presume that having their staff in the same physical space will automatically rekindle collaboration and resolve productivity problems. 

So, organise ongoing, meaningful team building or company-wide activities that allow your employees to collaborate, connect and socialise and give them a tangible reason to be in the office. For instance, you could consider: 

  • Regular get-togethers, like "Team Thursdays", for socialising or group problem-solving
  • Dedicating a few days a month to face-to-face planning or project work.
  • Offering professional development activities that your staff can only participate in onsite, such as leadership shadowing and in-person training. 

Whatever you decide, make it purposeful - these days, in-person time needs to be intentional. 

staff members listening to training session in bid to get employees back to the office

6. Explore incentives

Incentives can ease the transition and help keep employers competitive. Here are a few examples that other companies are trying:

  • Greater flexibility - for instance, introducing a four-day work week, nine-day fortnight, or flexible start and finish times.
  • 'Time-shifting' - allowing employees to come into the office during hours that suit them and making the rest of the time up at home.
  • Transport subsidies or parking incentives - to take some of the pressure off the commute.
  • Gift cards or a monetary amount per day - for your staff to spend at local retailers (this may also give employees a psychological boost as they'll be supporting small businesses in the area).
  • Higher paid or unpaid leave entitlements - to help recognise the true cost of your employee's commute.
  • Offering support to families - by setting up an onsite creche (using unwanted office space) or providing a monthly allowance to help cover childcare costs.
  • Fitness perks - for instance, in-office wellness programs or subsidised gym memberships.
  • Introducing an EAP program - designed to support your staff through workplace and personal challenges.
  • In-person events and programs - such as staff happy hours or providing free food and beverages. 
  • Tiered pay increases - for those who come in a certain percentage of the week or on certain days. But keep in mind that employees are generally motivated by more than money.

7. Stay considerate

If a staff member still has genuine concerns or fears, don't force them to come in. It will only lead to unnecessary stress. Stay considerate and work with them on a solution they are comfortable with. 

8. Create a feedback loop

We can't stress the importance of communication enough. Even once you've established your return-to-work plan, keep communicating with your employees and adapting your policies. The working landscape and employee expectations are constantly changing. So, if you want to retain talent, you need to stay flexible and change with it. Consider:

  • Ongoing employee surveys
  • Increased email communications
  • One-on-ones and team meetings
  • Introducing an open-door policy

9. Accept that flexibility might be here to stay

We have to face the facts. Many employees just don't want to return to the office full-time. It's clear that the physical office still has a purpose, but a push to return five days a week might suggest a bit of "old-school thinking." 

Perhaps we need to change how we view work and permanently adopt a more hybrid approach, like giving people the freedom to choose where they want to work or only designating certain days or times to be in the office.

Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Before making any changes, consider the need for your employees to return to work. Remember to think about whether it's essential, mutually agreed and optimises productivity.

Whatever path you take is unlikely to keep everyone happy. Going to the office never really worked for everyone; it was just what everyone did. So, do some soul-searching. Explore why you want people back (and how often) and whether your strategy will help you achieve these goals. 

Returning to work after Covid: What does the future look like for you?

For many businesses, the 'new normal' will be a balance of fixed and flexible working, leaving many considering how much office space they will need in the future. Property costs are usually the highest fixed costs for businesses, so any space-saving will boost the bottom line.

Are you looking to reduce your office space or renegotiate your lease? Contact the team at Tenant CS. We're independent commercial real estate experts who exclusively represent tenants.

Get in touch with our team today!

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