What to do if your employees don’t want to return to the office
Engagement 4 minute read

What to do if your employees don’t want to return to the office

Megan Orr | November 2, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some companies have mandated or plan to mandate a return to the office in the new year. However, data shows that employees don’t want to return to the office—at least not full time. Continue reading to learn more about what employees actually want and how you can offer flexibility and support.

By now, business leaders and HR professionals have asked themselves (and each other) these questions: What can we do if our employees don’t want to return to the office? Can we make it mandatory for  them to come in? Or let them continue to work from home? 

There’s no simple answer, or even one answer. Employees are looking for flexibility, but also miss the energy of the office. Some employees aren’t willing to come back into the office at all, while others feel that working in the same physical space is essential for collaboration. 

However, a good hybrid or remote work culture can support employees in and out of office equally. Here are some options if your employees don’t want to return to the office. 

Employees want flexibility now more than ever. 

Flexibility has always been considered a perk for many employees, but now it’s an expectation. Currently, as many as 77% of respondents in one survey have said that “flexibility is a key factor that'll be part of their decision to stay with or leave a company”.

Alison Green of Ask a Manager writes that there are many reasons why employees may prefer working from home: “whether that’s because of the lack of commute or other quality-of-life boosts” such as childcare, “or because they can focus better and are more productive when they don’t have a dozen people taking calls nearby”. 

Be explicit about expectations and lead by example. 

Communication is key when navigating a potential return to the office. Sit down with your leadership team to discuss your options, being sure to include feedback from employees as well. Talk exceptions and hypotheticals—if we come back part-time, do we pick specific anchor days or let departments or individuals decide for themselves; if we go by a certain schedule, do we still allow flexibility for working remotely a certain number of days or do you have to be in the office on specific days no matter what; if we go back full-time what happens if some employees don’t want to return to the office at all, etc. 

Have the answers to these questions and communicate the details of your return to work policy with your employees. If you’re looking for an example of a return to work policy, we’ve created a useful template that you can download for free: COVID-19 workplace return policy template.

Ensure that whatever your policy ends up being that management is on board. Managers should be prepared to lead by example by not just following policies, but exemplifying them, such as not working from the office every day when the work model is hybrid. According to a study, “nearly half of Canadian workers are worried that they would be viewed less favourably and lose out on promotion opportunities if they work remotely in a hybrid working model”.

Ultimately, employers must accept that even if they’re 100% flexible, they aren’t going to be able to make everyone happy. 

A reader wrote to Alison Green’s Ask a Manager recently to describe their frustration that their employees don’t want to return to the office. Alison answered in an article for The Cut, saying that, pandemic aside, what works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone. 

The reality is that there’s a big shift happening across nearly every industry and you’re likely to lose (and gain) some employees in this process. 

People who want 100% flexibility won’t be happy with a structured hybrid schedule, such as two days in the office and three days from home. People who like structure won’t be happy if you’re offering 100% flexibility and the rest of the office isn’t coming in as regularly as they are (such as Alison’s question writer who feels that working in office is essential for “networking, team-building, and maintaining a strong company culture” and that those who aren’t committed to coming in regularly “don’t value their careers”). 

Offering flexibility will shortly become the bare minimum for the majority of industries and workplaces—rather than the perk it has been. So, be flexible, but know that flexibility won’t guarantee your employees are going to stay.

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