How can organisations encourage employees to return to office?

Enforcement and coercion may no longer work with employees. Ironically, flexibility and autonomy – an ‘at-will’ hybrid policy – are key, say HR leaders

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With remote work having become a norm, organisations, the world over, are mulling over creative measures to entice workers back to the workplace. In Sydney, Australia, property- development group, Mirvac is busy transforming its offices into ‘adaptive workplaces’, where employees can modify the space to suit their needs. They can move around furniture— desks and chairs — and plants where they want to. According to Mirvac’s head of commercial property, this unique office setup replicates the agility and comfort of work-from-home (WFH) wherein people sit around kitchen tables, even working in their bedrooms. Likewise, Clear Match Medicare, a medicare plan comparison platform based in Connecticut, US, has introduced a free lunch programme. Under this initiative, the HR books a different type of food truck — pizza, salads and so on — for employees for each day of the week.

“Organisations that insist on workers returning to the workplace in the post-pandemic era will find it difficult to retain talent”

Ganesh Chandan V, CHRO, Tata Projects

Our very own Tata Consultancy Services ran a social-media campaign to try and lure employees back to office with fun pictures and quotes about their “favourite office nooks”, “coffee breaks” and “office corridors” calling out to them.

However, whatever the reason — the hassle of a daily commute, or a realigned lifestyle as a result of two years of remote work — employees remain reluctant to get back to the workplace five days a week. So, should organisations in India also adopt such novel practices to bring employees back to the office? Are these sustainable over the long term? How else can employees be urged to return to the workplace? HR leaders put forth several thought-provoking suggestions.

“A teamwork culture promotes the practice of working from office”

Alok Jha, senior HR leader

Incentives are not sustainable

“I don’t think it is a good idea to provide monetary, or any sort of tangible incentives to encourage employees to return to office,” opines Alok Jha, senior HR leader. He notes that once begun, such a scheme would be difficult to put an abrupt halt to. He also underlines the economic unfeasibility of such ideas, pointing out how it would be impossible for a company to continue with such a programme, should it be faced with financial difficulties.

“Coming to the actual office helps employees gain better exposure to projects and clients. Additionally, engaging in teamwork, particularly in a physical office environment, enables employees to gauge their own strengths and weaknesses. That makes a person better at their work and more professional,” says Jha, in reference to the many intangible benefits of coming to the workplace – an incentive in itself.

“I think it makes sense for companies to allow employees — such as students, those with elderly ailing parents, or mothers with young children — to come to the workplace in the first half, and enjoy flexibility in the second half”

Bidisha Banerjee, senior HR leader and coach

The unsustainability of incentives is further emphasised by Bidisha Banerjee, senior HR leader and coach. “Incentives are definitely not a permanent solution,” she says. Alluding to the complexity of the situation, she notes the parallel existence of a significant number of employees that genuinely wants to work from office, not home. Largely comprising singles, extroverts and younger individuals, these are workers who genuinely enjoy the vibrancy and energy of a conventional office setup.

Lead by example

Instead of inducements, Jha offers several suggestions to coax employees back to the workplace – at least on most days of the week.

“To begin with, leaders must start coming to the workplace themselves. They must learn to lead by example,” he suggests. “Also, it may be a good idea to conduct engagement activities — such as a town hall meeting — at the workplace,” advises Jha, adding that such events could become opportunities for bestowing recognition and rewards on outstanding employees. “To be honoured and felicitated in the presence of other employees can be motivational and inspirational for the other employees,” he explains.

The well-known benefits of teamwork include improved productivity and a boost in innovation. Jha draws on this point, underlining the importance of building and fostering a culture of teamwork at the organisation. “A teamwork culture promotes the practice of working from office,” he opines.

Listen, converse, engage

A different perspective is offered by Ganesh Chandan V, CHRO, Tata Projects, who questions the need to call employees to office on a regular basis altogether. “We are living at a time when work-life balance has become extremely critical. Therefore, organisations should allow employees to leverage technology and continue working on a hybrid, flexible basis,” he opines. He warns of the perils of corporate imposition in this context. “Organisations that insist on workers returning to the workplace in the post-pandemic era will find it difficult to retain talent” he explains.

Chandan V cites the example of his current organisation to drive home the point. “Both the leadership and staff at our company are required to come to office just twice a week,” he informs, stressing on the sustainability of the hybrid work model. “The hybrid work experience allows people to effectively work and engage, and have the right work-life balance”.

Banerjee articulates a similar position. “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught people to value health and mental well-being above all else,” she says. “There are many employees today who would prefer a lesser role to giving up the cherished freedom and flexibility of remote work,” she points out.

Furthermore, Banerjee highlights the futility of imposing a blanket rule on all employees, underscoring the need for organisations to take a harder look at role-specific requirements.

“I suggest that organisations ask employees to come to the workplace on a specific day, so that everyone can get together at the same time, facilitating better rapport, connection and collaboration,” she says. Her second suggestion relates to flexibility. “I think it makes sense for companies to allow employees — such as students, those with elderly ailing parents, or mothers with young children — to come to the workplace in the first half, and enjoy flexibility in the second half,” she counsels.

Forbes mentions a 2022 survey conducted by workplace platform, Envoy, on company leaders. The survey revealed that 77 per cent of organisations had adopted a hybrid work model to encourage workers to return to the office. The most popular was the ‘at-will’ hybrid policy, which respected the employee’s decision to choose when to come to the workplace.

Banerjee’s final suggestion relates to this policy. “I think it is important that organisations listen, converse and engage. They must ask their employees what they want, instead of assuming. There needs to be a fine balance between what employees want and what the organisation needs,” she opines. “The moment rules are enforced or coercion used, the employees will begin looking for the next best option,” she concludes.

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