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Many employers struggle with return-to-office programs

During the first year or so of the pandemic, many observers wondered what the long-term implications would be of having so many employees work from home. Now that we’re about three and a half years out from the pandemic’s onset, one of the ramifications is becoming clear — and it’s posing a challenge to employers.

Recent surveys indicate that many employees really value the flexibility of remote work arrangements. And this preference is causing some employers to struggle with the implementation or enforcement of their “return-to-office” programs.

Survey says: Uh-oh

Under a return-to-office program, employees are required to come back to a designated location to work at least part of the time. Ideally, the program involves measures and activities that help staff members transition back to working on-site.

The concept makes sense in theory. Few people, if any, expected a large number of employees to keep working remotely long after the height of the pandemic. And yet, if recent survey results are any indication, successful return-to-office programs aren’t exactly easy to pull off. Here are some examples:

C-suite chagrin. Office management solutions provider Envoy published a report this year that found, of more than 1,100 executives and managers surveyed in June 2023, 80% regret how they handled their return-to-office program and would have executed it differently had they better understood their employees’ views on office attendance and usage of office amenities.

Turnover and time-to-hire.  A similar study also conducted this year by workplace design firm Unispace found that 42% of surveyed businesses with return-to-office mandates suffered a higher-than-expected level of employee attrition. And 29% of responding companies that currently require a return to office believe they’re struggling to recruit employees.

 The retention riddle.  Data published this year in a report by business research nonprofit The Conference Board corroborates Unispace’s findings, indicating that 71% of its survey respondents with in-office mandates reported employee retention problems, while only 46% of respondents who allow employees to choose between remote and in-office work reported difficulty retaining workers.

A clear message

The message of all these survey results is clear: For employers, “getting back to normal” isn’t going to be a simple endeavor. If your organization has implemented a return-to-office program, don’t assume it will work out … eventually.

Repeated issues such as conflicts with employees over scheduling or productivity, as well as an uptick in turnover and difficulty hiring, are significant red flags. You may need to adjust your program, relaunch it or perhaps even scrap the initiative entirely. Our firm can help you identify and track metrics that will enable you to chart a reasonable course forward.

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