Encouraging people back into the office for the right reasons

To work at home, in the office or between the two is increasingly becoming an issue that employees and employers are having to work closely together on.

As the thought of enforced government lockdowns are becoming a distant memory for many Kiwis, the return to work is a discussion point for many teams across the country. Questions such as “is it safe?” are commonplace, as are concerns about the rising costs of commuting to work, or perhaps in some regions of Aotearoa New Zealand, the rising home power bill that has been seen as an inevitable side effect of working at home more in the cooler months.

The cost of petrol and heating aside, company culture and team performance is at stake. Businesses are increasingly encouraging their employees back on site for the sake of the business, and maintaining company culture.

We take a look at how companies are encouraging their teams back into the office, and how you can make changes within your workplace to make it a more desirable space to return to. At the end of the day, having employees willingly return to the office, for the right reasons, will help support your company culture in the long term.

What are Aotearoa New Zealand businesses doing to encourage their teams back to the office?

Unlike Tesla, Aotearoa New Zealand businesses don’t appear to be mandating a return to business. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk recently stated that if people fail to show up in person, “we will assume you have resigned”.

A good example of Kiwi businesses working collaboratively with their employees is Vodafone. They’ve adopted a bespoke approach to hybrid working which they’re monitoring closely. Key observations include:

  • Using an HR tool to seek real-time feedback from employees about their day-to-day working life, organisational health and the impact of change on individuals,
  • Staff engagement was at 69% – better than the industry averages for software companies, telecommunications companies and large companies,
  • 75% of employees felt positive about the support they received during Covid-19 lockdowns,
  • 88% of employees felt well supported during an unsettling time,
  • Vodafone believes the key to their success is: nurturing, engagement, technology and flexibility,
  • Flexibility can include a mix of working at home or from the office, but also being respectful of people’s lunch breaks and not emailing outside core work hours,
  • Vodafone also has a network of volunteer employees who offer to help other employees if they’re isolating with Covid-19 or need additional support,

Certainly, other organisations are taking a more managed approach to the return to work. The Retirement Commission Te Ara Ahunga Ora asked its staff in May 2022 to head back to the office. Consultation was undertaken with staff about the best way forward and they settled on a mix of in-office days for 3 days a week and working from home for two days a week. A mix of working can ensure certain types of collaborative work are prioritised for in-person office days, and deep-thinking work for quieter, at-home days.

Understanding the health and wellbeing needs of your team is paramount in settling a workable solution for both parties. Companies need to think about how they can make the workplace more attractive, safer and a place to socialise, collaborate and innovate – important factors that can be hard to replicate in the at-home environment.

Encouraging employees back to the office

Companies around the world are grappling with balancing the needs of their businesses with the needs of their employees. Expectations have changed over the last few years about how we want to work, and what we’re willing to sacrifice. Employers also have a better understanding of what work can be done at home and at the office.

There is no doubt that many companies could work remotely 100% of the week, but certain aspects of a company culture may be sacrificed in the process. Companies and employees need to work together, to identify within their specific industries and unique workplaces, what work or relationships are at risk unless a hybrid model is employed. Consider interpersonal relationships, team bonding, innovation through brainstorming/workshopping, and empathetic support of colleagues with work and personal matters. Understanding subtle cues that an employee is stressed, overworked or struggling with a particular issue can be easier to spot in person, than over a Zoom call.

Businesses need to address two key areas as they look to encourage their teams back to the office: health and safety concerns and flexible working hours.

Health and safety concerns and how you can tackle them

  • Company Covid-19 protocols – if an employee has unvaccinated or immunocompromised people in their household, getting Covid-19 could be a very real concern. Think about how you encourage your team to stay home or go home if they’re not well. How you manage this will be assessed by team members who fear getting ill.
  • Office cleanliness – have you increased the quality or frequency of your office cleaning protocols since 2020? If you have, reassure your team about what you’re doing and how you’re keeping them as safe as possible.
  • Social distancing – are you encouraging large team events, or promoting small group meetings? Do you have certain team members rostered on certain days in the office to reduce Covid-19 spread across your workforce? Have you separated your desks to increase minimum distances between employees, or added screens to reduce the spread of germs?

Anxiety in the workplace – understand what issues are worrying your employees. Is it fear of getting ill, caring for sick family members, or job insecurity? No matter the issues being raised, consider regularly updating your workforce on evolving company policies to keep people safe, consider how you can all work more flexibly and be more transparent about how the company is performing.

Embracing flexibility

It’s likely your employees have got used to more flexibility about how they manage their workday, whether it’s to do more exercise or be more involved with their family responsibilities and commitments. In a talent shortage, flexible working conditions are a no-brainer to attract and retain the employees you need to run your businesses successfully.

  • Flexibility – about where your employees work, their working hours and how they manage their workdays
  • Flex times – are there certain times of the day or periods in your working week where your employees can be assured they won’t be bugged for meetings or urgent requests. Lunch times, Monday mornings, and Friday afternoons are common no-go zones where your team can feel like they have the autonomy to arrange personal appointments, spend time with their families or get in a gym class. Blocking these times out in diaries helps create that feeling of security and certainty of those flex hours of the week.
  • Hybrid work models – work with your employees to agree on the best, most productive mix of working from home, in the office or from third places such as local cafes or co-working spaces close to home.
  • Connection – understand how your employees like to connect – with each other, their teams, their managers or the wider organisation. For some people, this means having set days of the week that are at the office and dedicated to meetings, workshops and innovation sessions, freeing up the rest of the week to work from home and get the work done. For others, they miss the camaraderie of weekly planning sessions or end-of-the-week drinks. Take the time to understand the best reasons to lure your people back to the office.
  • Can your business support employees back to the office by helping with spiralling travel or parking costs? Or providing on-site health and wellness initiatives that will make it seem ‘worthwhile’ coming back on site.

We’ve previously written an article that discussed how to ensure your workplace is worth the commute – read on for more information.

Encourage or mandate a return to the office?

As a supplier of commercial office furniture and creators of inspiring workspaces, we believe in the office environment as a place to welcome, inspire, nurture and perform. We help our clients every day to create the right fit spaces for their evolving teams and truly believe the office can deliver all that and more.

For employers considering a mandated return to work, they need to thoroughly understand their HR and legal requirements. Ideally, companies would work closely with their employees to gauge interest and any roadblocks to return to the office and consider any exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Above all else, businesses have a responsibility to keep their teams safe against Covid-19 and other infectious diseases that become more prevalent in winter months. Businesses must continue to be flexible and agile when it comes to quickly introducing protocols to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of their people.

Open conversations with employees are key for employers in 2022. In addition to being helpful for return-to-work conversations, open and honest communication can help build culture, promote loyalty and employee retention, and support employee engagement.

Approaching anxious employees, concerned about returning to the office, with empathy and a willingness to understand their concerns will be beneficial to all parties.

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