Did You Flub Back-to-Office Messaging?

It’s OK to make it clear to employees that they are expected back in the office a few days a week, but coupling the requirement with an enticement would help to make the directive more palatable.

Back-to-office messaging sometimes happens in stages these days as more companies are going back to an in-person work environment. Stage one is the voluntary request in which a company welcomes back employees to the office two to three days per week. It sounds like an invitation that executives hope you accept. Stage two is when it’s been six to 12 months since the invitation was extended, and hardly anyone has returned. This when the mandate is issued. Stage three is when the mandate is issued, and there are individuals who continue to drag their heels. That’s when the negotiation begins.

For example, there might be a stipulation that those who live more than an hour-and-a-half from the office are excused, or that an employee at the managerial level can negotiate to come in just once a week (even if their whole team is there two to three days weekly).

Presence Required

There are many ways to flub back-to-office messaging. The chief way is to inform employees who formerly were offered unlimited flexibility that suddenly they are required to return to the office a specified number of days per week, and for a specific time frame on those days. The transition from friendly invitation to a firm, “Actually, it’s no longer a choice; you have to be here,” can be jarring.

“Many of the carrots they’ve [companies] been dangling, including free food, happy hours, and group-bonding activities, haven’t necessarily been successful in prodding workers to fully comply with in-office mandates. And even when there’s not a widespread flouting of the return-to-work policy, companies have been more inclined to make their expectations crystal clear, amid layoffs and hiring slowdowns,” Cheryl Winokur Munk wrote on the CNBC Website in June 2023.

Munk says this approach comes with risk: “Human Resources experts have warned employers over the last few years that firm-wide mandates come with the risk of losing top talent along with employees firms might be comfortable with letting go.”

Changes in Circumstances

With the Great Resignation seemingly over, organizations may be seeing an opportunity to get their old work life back. The problem is the in-person circumstances for that organization may have changed. Some companies with large, expensive office space may have downsized, or stepped down in luxury, from what they had before the pandemic. The office may no longer be in as convenient a location, or the space may be smaller and less luxurious. And even when the office space is unchanged, the mentality of many employees has changed. The hour, or more, commute that was acceptable five days a week before the pandemic is no longer acceptable two or three days per week.

Carrot-and-Stick Strategy

If I were organizing a back-to-office transition, I would pair the carrot with the stick. I would state that it’s a requirement, but would avoid using words such as “requirement” and “mandate,” and phrases such as “We’re not asking.” You don’t want to sound like a strict parent who is angry they are not being listened to. I would say something like, “We will be returning to an in-office schedule this year. Tuesdays through Thursdays we will all be in the office together. You will have a chance to collaborate faster and easier with colleagues and managers during those days when we are all together. And—not to give too much away—there will be happy surprises during your in-office time that you will have to be there to enjoy.”

Those surprises could be complimentary lunch or desserts, such as an ice cream bar with all the fixings, once a week or once a month, or a surprise in-office game organized at the end of the day. Another happy surprise could be quarterly or biannual gift cards to a local restaurant or other nearby business, or even modest Visa gift cards. The key is that the timing of these surprises would never be announced in advance. Employees would never know when the surprises are coming, and if they are not there in the office when surprises come, they would miss out.

I also would see if I could create a new permanent luxury in the office, such as a new coffee and hot chocolate machine or a vending machine that dispenses ice cream bars. Or a refurbished lounge area in the office.

It’s OK to make it clear to employees that they are expected back two to three days per week, but you must couple the requirement with an enticement. If you don’t, the directive to return to the office regularly will be interpreted as nothing but a punishment.

How are you managing employees’ return to the office in our post-pandemic world? If you successfully accomplished this a while time ago, how did you do it?