How to Navigate Your Return to Office Strategy


Excitement, anxiety and apathy – your employees are likely feeling one or more of these emotions when the words “return to office” are mentioned. What was once the norm — heading into the office Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 — is now seen by many as outdated and “old school.”

Prior to March 2020, many business leaders assumed working from home reduced productivity, impeded collaboration and fostered laziness. Now, over a year and a half later, this theory has been thoroughly debunked. Not that proof didn’t exist beforehand, a study conducted by Stanford in 2015 found working from home led to a 13 per cent performance increase, with employees reporting improved work satisfaction and an attrition rate cut nearly in half.

However, Forbes argues this potential increase in productivity is due to employees utilizing what was once commute time for work-related activities rather than an unequivocal increase in job satisfaction. We could go back and forth on the pros and cons of working from the office vs. working from home, but that’s not the focus of this blog.

If you’ve decided your team is returning to the office in some capacity, whether it’s full-time or a hybrid approach, it’s time to make organizational decisions on how to structure your company’s post-pandemic “new normal.” Here are some tips to make that process as smooth as possible.

1. Conduct an internal survey

The best people to help mould the future of your organization are already readily available to you. While it might be easier to paint your entire organization with the same brush, the fact is if you don’t take the time to consider what’s best for your team you run the risk of losing them. A recent study conducted by Envoy and Wakefield Research reported 47 per cent of respondents saying they would leave their job if they didn’t offer a hybrid model once the pandemic ends.

At the beginning of June, here at BOWEN Group, we conducted an internal survey of our employees and their attitudes towards returning to office. Just over half responded they were looking forward to return to work on some level, with 48 per cent expressing their preference to remain working from home.

This came as a stark contrast to our employee survey conducted one year prior when the transition to working from home happened quickly and without much notice. Employees had previously shared they missed the social benefits and structure of the office. Ultimately, people are adaptable and attitudes change. While there’s always pain at the beginning of any transition we eventually get comfortable with the revised structure or we move on.

While research conducted over the last year has found an overwhelming preference for a hybrid work from home/in office model, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what’s right for your company. Before conducting your survey it’s important to reflect on why you want your employees in the office. Having a clear understanding of the motivation behind asking employees to return to the office in some capacity will help build your survey and open a dialogue within your business.

2. Be transparent and timely in your communications with employees

Speaking of opening that dialogue with your employees, it’s imperative to communicate regularly and honestly with your teams during this period of transition. Employees who feel anxious about returning to the office aren’t only feeling worried about their physical health, but also the impact on their mental health and families.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that will make 100% of your employees happy. Regardless of what you decide you should expect to see some level of attrition. Your job is to mitigate those losses, and the best way to do that is by being upfront and honest with your employees. When you’re open to feedback and genuinely take the time to understand why your employees feel one way or another about working from home or working in the office you foster a culture of trust and collaboration, which in turn increases morale and productivity and should help you successfully mitigate potential losses.

3. Ensure your office technology is up-to-date and ready to go

The swift move to remote working posed many challenges at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed technology to the forefront of conversations around navigating working from home. However, a lot has changed in the last year and a half. If your office has been sitting mostly empty during this time it’s likely some updates may have been missed and processes need to be reworked or created from scratch.

To ensure a smooth transition for employees returning to the office, it’s important their access to technology isn’t disrupted. Take the time to work with your IT team to understand what’s required to update, maintain or purchase in order to prevent unnecessary technology hiccups once staff are back in the office regularly.

One way to prevent overburdening your IT team is by utilizing contractors to assist with implementation prior to your employees returning. Not to toot our own horn, but at BOWEN one of our specialties is in information technology recruitment and staffing. Talk to your IT head to understand their needs and then let us do the rest. Your office will be back up and running in no time.

4. Create a welcoming environment

A big reason employees do want to return to the office is for the energy of the workplace culture. If your organization lacked that energy prior to the pandemic this can be a huge opportunity to reset and rebuild. Alternatively, if your office had a great buzz prior to the pandemic, you may assume that will just come right back, or be worried that it died with the pandemic.

Don’t sweat. If you’ve done all the work we’ve recommended so far then you’ve already laid the foundation of setting your workplace culture up for success. The next step is to maintain the culture of trust and collaboration you’ve been working on in advance of the return.

Before your staff return to the office on a regular basis it’s important to consider the following:

  • Health & Safety – In the past when considering health & safety measures many organizations focused more on the safety aspect – workplace hazards, WHMIS, fire drills, etc. While this hasn’t become any less important, it’s time to give equal consideration to the health side of the equation. What are you doing to protect and maintain both the physical and mental health of your employees as they return to the office on a regular basis?
  • Employee Engagement – Your staff have worked remotely for well over a year and many of them have become comfortable with digital collaboration. In-office employee engagement needs to extend beyond pre-pandemic levels. During your survey take the time to ask your employees how you can create an exciting and engaging environment when they return. Remember, it’s the little things people care about. Showing empathy and taking the time to understand how you can help make your staff comfortable is more important than throwing a ping pong table in the breakroom and hoping people use it.
  • Office Atmosphere – Make sure your staff have a comfortable area to work in. Again, when you survey your staff this is a great opportunity to understand their needs. If your office environment is distracting have a quiet place people can go to take phone calls or escape from the hustle and bustle for a little bit. If your office feels too quiet consider playing music or instituting more cross-team knowledge sharing. Whatever your employees say they need to feel comfortable at work should be at the very least considered to help create a welcoming office environment for your team.

As you develop your return to office strategy you may find resources to accomplish fully setting your workplace up for success are thin. At BOWEN we have a vast network of administrative and human resources professionals we can call on who are ready help prepare your office for the future. Consider bringing on temporary administrative or human resources professionals to help ease the burden on your regular employees.

5. Take your time

There’s no prize for being the first to bring your employees back to the office. Businesses needed to act quickly to transition to remote work due to the pandemic, but your return to the office strategy has the benefit of not being time sensitive. This is the time to be strategic. Although you may be eager to get your employees back and to reinvigorate the office culture it’s important to remain sensitive to their concerns while remaining adept to your organization’s priorities.

Your team will likely need time to adjust, and that’s okay. Consider your return to office as a pilot program that isn’t set in stone. By having regular and transparent discussions with your employees you have the opportunity to setup expectations in advance and help your employees prepare for the future. With talent migration already starting, and competitors growing their teams as society begins to reopen, you’re about to experience stiff competition to hire the best of the best.

Eventually these return to office discussions currently weighing on business leaders’ minds will become a thing of the past, but right now it’s important to be strategic in the present while preparing for the future. At BOWEN we’re ready to help you find temporary staff, consultants and contractors to assist setting up your office for success.

On the other hand, if your organization isn’t taking the necessary steps to prepare for the future then they run the risk of losing their talent. If it’s time for you to make a career move, consider our career transition services or take a look at our job board and our recruiters will help connect you with an organization that fits your needs.