Forcing Employees Back to the Office Could Spur a Retention Crisis. Do This Instead.

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Companies need to think carefully about the decision to bring employees back to the office full-time. The flexibility of remote work is driving employee satisfaction and a healthier work/life balance. Take that away from employees, and it could have far-reaching impacts on everything from recruiting and retaining talent to employee productivity and innovation.

Instead, HR executives and business leaders need to build a work model that allows employees to retain flexibility while also benefiting from everything the office offers. By considering what employees require to do their best work and rethinking the office space to facilitate teamwork and collaboration, companies can create a back-to-the-office strategy that serves employees and the bottom line.

Why Flexibility Is the Key to Empowering Your Employees

At Hibob, we conducted a global survey to understand how employees feel about working from home and their expectations post-COVID. We found that the benefits of remote work far outweighed the cons: 77 percent of those surveyed expressed high productivity levels since the shift to remote work, and 62 percent said it allowed for a better work/life balance.

Two main factors are driving this burst in productivity and job satisfaction. Employees are saving hours by not commuting and have the flexibility to create their own schedules. By allowing people to work the way they want to and freeing up mornings to allow for deep focus instead of hours spent in traffic, everyone wins. No office perk can replace that.

The possible retention crisis that HR will have on its hands if employees are forced back to the office should set off alarm bells. Our survey showed that only 13 percent of employees prefer to return to the office five days a week, and more than a third of the workforce will likely quit if forced back. More troubling is that working parents are twice as likely to quit and look for a new opportunity if forced to return to the office full-time. After proving to employers for the past year that they can be productive while working from anywhere, employees will need a good reason to head back to the grind of the 9-5.

Creating a Back-to-the-Office Strategy That Serves Your Employees and Your Company

The past year has shown that people can work from anywhere. With such high productivity levels, the question shifts from “How to bring employees back to the office” to “Why bring employees back at all?” Some companies have told employees they can work remotely indefinitely, with Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke going so far as to boldly state that “office centricity is over.”

While the office may no longer be where employees spend the bulk of their time, it still has benefits for teamwork, company culture, and social connections. Instead of doing away with the office altogether or forcing employees to come back full-time, companies need to find the middle ground.

Our survey found that a hybrid work model, where employees work from home and the office, is the best solution. Seventy-three percent of managers said two or three days in the office and the rest working from home would be the preferred hybrid work model. The office has value as a shared space where employees can work together, learn from each other, and seek advice. Some employees thrive outside of the office, while others, such as recent grads entering the job force, would benefit from in-person training and the networking and social opportunities of an office. There are teams that work independently while others work more closely, feeding off of the group energy. To determine the right back-to-the-office strategy for your company, it’s best to ask employees how they want to work.

Start by sending out a survey asking employees how many days they’d like to work in the office. Be clear in your wording, and don’t offer employees anything you can’t deliver on. If you’ve already signed the lease on extra office space and know that you’ll be bringing employees back, don’t ask if they’d like to work completely remotely. This will only lead to mistrust and a disgruntled workforce. Instead, ask your employees what type of work they’d prefer to do in the office versus at home. Posing these kinds of questions to your employees shows that you value their input and view them as partners in crafting a strategy that makes sense for everyone.

Ultimately, your strategy for bringing employees back to the office needs to align with how your employees want to work. After investing time and resources in designing offices that better motivate employees and bring out their passion, it can be surprising to learn that what employees need isn’t ping-pong tables, sleep pods, or a fully stocked cafeteria. What your employees need is flexibility. Now that we understand this, the last thing companies should do is take it away.

Ronni Zehavi is CEO of Hibob.

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Ronni Zehavi is the cofounder and CEO of Hibob, a transformative HR platform launched in 2015 that helps workers communicate, collaborate, and cultivate culture more effectively. Under Ronni's leadership, following the successful close of its Series A funding round in March 2019, the company has closed a total of $45 million in funding. This year, Hibob also was named one of the top 10 Israeli startups set to become a unicorn by Qumra Capital, as well as one of London's five tech startups to watch in 2018 by RocketSpace, a global network of technology campuses working with innovative startups from around the world.