Back to Top

7 Ways to Prepare Your Company and Teams for Returning to the Office

Hunter McKinley
September 16, 2021

Even as businesses start returning to the office, research shows that:

The influx of remote work in 2020 changed the way companies plan to do business going forward.

This begs the question: Do you need to return to the office?

If you are leaning toward yes, how can you prepare your remote workforce to get back into the swing of office life?

In this article, we will look at seven ways you can prepare your team to return to the office after working from home. But before we get into the thick of it, let’s take a look at how you can be sure your business needs to return to the office.

Wait, do we need to return to the office?

Returning to the office might feel like the right thing to do simply because it’s what we used to do pre-pandemic. But there have certainly been benefits to working remotely. Let’s take a look at some of them.

  • Matched or improved productivity levels: Research shows that 94% of employers reported no effect or an improvement in productivity since working remotely.
94% of employers say productivity has remained the same or improved 
since employees began working remotely.

Another survey by FlexJobs with over 4,000 participants shows that 51% of remote workers feel they’ve been more productive since working from home. Teams were able to continue working productively despite the challenges of working remotely with little warning or preparation.

  • A wider pool of talent: Remote working opens up the talent pool for business owners. This gives you access to a wider selection of candidates than if you’re working in an office.
  • Lower costs: If you’re part of a remote team, you don’t have to pay to use an office. This keeps your overhead costs down and allows you to spend money in areas that matter, like growing your business.

So is returning to the office really the best thing for your business?

Sure, some people miss the office setting and the social aspect of being around coworkers. In fact, the FlexJobs survey found that almost half of them do. But if things are working well remotely and people are happy, it might not be the right move.

To find out if returning to work is the best option, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the benefits of returning to work?
  • How do these compare to the benefits of working from home?
  • From your experience, where do your employees do their best work?
  • Who is it really for? Is it just for you, or will it benefit the entire team?
  • Will it hinder productivity for certain team members by reducing their flexibility?

Put simply, there’s a lot to consider before you decide to return to the office. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. But it’s up to you to figure out whether it’s the right move for your business and your employees.

Staff wellbeing and the death of the commute 

As well as keeping productivity levels high, remote working has improved staff wellbeing.

Take a look at commuting, for example. The FlexJobs survey reported 79% of employees said that their lives were better because they no longer had to commute while working from home. And with 36% of employees tallying up their commute to two or more hours per day, this statistic isn’t surprising.

Let’s take a look at a couple of the other reasons why remote working can improve staff wellbeing:

  • Spending more time with family and friends: Employees who work from home spend less time traveling to and from work and more time at home with their loved ones. We know that working from home has allowed people to spend more time with their families. Doing so is a great way for employees to relieve stress and just generally be happier (providing they all get along, of course).
  • Flexibility around work schedule: Employees working from home have a certain level of flexibility that in-office workers don’t have. In short, they have a better work-life balance. So long as they get the job done, they can plan their workday around their home life.

Now, we’re not saying that remote working doesn’t have any downsides when it comes to the wellbeing of your employees.

Research has shown that working at home can have positive and negative impacts depending on the environment, the level of work support, and social connections. And as we mentioned earlier, many employees miss seeing colleagues face to face.

Having your home as your workplace doesn’t come without its challenges. But we want you to know how your employees can benefit from remote working before you throw in the towel and bring them back to the office.

Now that we’ve laid out the facts, let’s take a look at the seven steps you can follow to prepare for a return to the office (if that’s what you decide to do).

1. Overcommunicate and create an open forum to allow for feedback

In June 2021, Apple’s CEO sent a company-wide notification telling employees they’d be back in the office three days a week by early September.

Some Apple employees weren’t on board with this policy. They fired a letter back, stating the following:

“Over the last year, we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored. Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating.”

So, what could Apple have done differently to avoid this situation?

The answer is simple: Dialogue.

Infographic on the most important drivers for creating a positive return-to-workplace experience.

If Apple had engaged in open communication with their employees, they could’ve avoided this whole situation. After all, they don’t say communication is key for no reason.

And that’s why you need to make sure that you have open communication with your team throughout the entire process. Leave no stone unturned.

Here’s what we’d suggest:

  • Get input before you roll out your plan: Before you share your plan with anyone, get input from your team, perhaps through returning-to-the-office surveys or calls. This information should guide your plan.
  • Share your plan with team leaders and management first: Once you have an outline, share it with the top-level managers and team leaders before sharing it company-wide. This will give you a chance to make any last-minute amendments before you show it to the rest of the company.
  • Create a way for employees to provide feedback: As soon as you roll out the plan, keep an open line of communication. Think about how you can allow employees to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Rhys Black, Head of Remote at Oyster, suggests the following:

“Depending on the size of the company and the nature of their work, there are plenty of ways for them to gather feedback: polls, surveys, one-to-one in-person conversations. I’d recommend a mixture of the last two so they have a balance between anonymous and non-anonymous feedback.

They should also acknowledge/expect differences in responses due to various demographics (e.g., roles, teams, experience level, age, dependents, individual contributor vs. manager, etc.).

They should also set the expectations for their team before asking for the feedback too. Employees can feel suspicious or uneasy about giving feedback if they feel like they might have an unpopular opinion. Giving them clear messaging on what feedback is for, why it’s important, why it’s in their best interests to be forthcoming and honest, and that there’s no ulterior motives other than to listen to them, is important.”

  • Take their feedback into account: Communication is pointless if you don’t listen, so take their feedback into account and make sure your return to the office is as smooth and seamless as possible. Black says:

“Listening is not the difficult part. It’s the acting on what they hear that seems to be the difficult thing for some companies. Following on from that, if this is the first time a company has thought about taking on board employee feedback, there are probably a lot of other unresolved issues for them to tackle before this.”

2. Gauge how your employees are feeling

This is an extension of our previous point, but it’s important to mention nonetheless.

You need to get a pulse on their views and emotions around their work-life balance during the pandemic. You should also find out how they feel about returning to the office.

It’s normal for employees to have some reservations about returning to work, and you need to address this. If you don’t, they might take the opportunity to join a company that will.

Think about “the great resignation,” for example.

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, the great resignation is a term coined to describe—you guessed it—a lot of people quitting their jobs. Psychologist Dr. Anthony Klotz conceived it after Microsoft's 2021 Work Trend Index found that over 40% of employees surveyed plan to get a new job in 2021.

And 46% say they’re going to move because they can work remotely.

46% of employees say they’re likely to move because they can now work remotely.

So how does the great resignation relate to how your employees are feeling?

Think about it. If you decide to bring your team back into the office, but some of them prefer to work remotely, there’s a high chance they’ll find another role that offers them this level of flexibility.

So, when you ask employees for their feedback, focus on how they’re feeling. If they have worries or concerns, take these into account. Failing to do so could mean that you bring employees back to the office when they don’t want to be there—and this could result in you losing some of your team to another company.

3. Consider a hybrid model for flexibility (but do it right)

What happens if some of your employees are keen to get back to the office, but others don’t want to? Hybrid working is the answer you’re looking for.

Hybrid working is ideal for teams that want flexibility. You can create a work schedule with the best of both worlds, catering to everyone in your team. But it has to be done right.

In our opinion, remote-first hybrid working is a great way to help employees do deep work while maintaining relationships and harnessing in-person collaboration.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, hybrid working has a few different options:

  • Split time in the office: This means some employees never have to set foot in an office if they don’t want to, while others can choose to be in the office full-time. 
  • Micro-offices in distributed locations: The entire team works from specific locations or coworking spaces spread out around your geographic area (when they need to be in the office).
  • Remote-first hybrid working: Fully remote employees have freedom over where they choose to work.
  • Office-first hybrid working: On specific days, when the workload allows, team members can work remotely.

Liam Martin, Cofounder at Time Doctor and Co-organizer of Running Remote Conference, comments on hybrid working:

“Since the pandemic, employers are becoming more willing to allow employees to work at least occasionally from home or in a hybrid environment; every work setup carries its own risk. And since it's employees who will be affected by their work, their opinions are of fundamental importance.

Surveys are a good way to get employees' opinions. Consider asking numerous questions to gain a deeper understanding of employee preferences. Questions can include how often they prefer to work from home, preferred work hours, setup of a home office, whether they prefer to take their own device to work, meetings, collaboration, and other communication needs.

Also, you may want to [send] more surveys occasionally to see if people's preferences have changed.”

So how can you implement a hybrid working model?

Let’s take a look:

  • Be clear about what you expect: For a hybrid team to work, you need to be clear about what the structure will look like.
  • Use the right communication tools: Most hybrid working models mean that you can’t guarantee everyone will be working in the same location at the same time. As a result, you need a communication platform that allows you to collaborate and work with your team even when you’re not working in the same room.

This is where asynchronous communication tools can help.

With an async platform—like Yac, for example—you can communicate with your team without needing to be in the same place.

You can host async meetings and send voice notes that offer greater nuance and context that text based tools don't. Share feedback with audio screen recording that helps avoid miscommunication or needing to jump on another call.

Asynchronous communication with Yac.

Learn more about hybrid models and how to set up an infrastructure for part-time remote work in our myth-busting guide to hybrid working.

4. Empower one-to-one connections

If you’re returning to the office, make sure staff have a work environment to return to that prioritizes interpersonal relationships and empowers in-person collaboration in the best way possible.

Cubicle farms and open-plan office spaces are as bad as each other.

Illustrated endless cubicle farm.

The walls of a cubicle are naturally isolating, so to combat this, the corporate world knocked them all down. Unfortunately, open office designs didn’t produce the desired productive interactions that leaders had hoped for.

There isn’t going to be a one size fits all model for optimal workspace architecture. But if you can, try to create office plans that enable teams to huddle up when they need to. Give teams access to whiteboard areas and ditch the long, family-style tables.

Before you reopen office doors (if you reopen office doors), you might also want to schedule some social events for employees to catch up and rebuild relationships. Virtual happy hours haven’t been the best way for employees to connect one-to-one (especially if you haven’t been using voice communication).

5. Consider returning in phases (or on a trial basis)

When you’re thinking about returning to the office, jumping into the deep end can be a recipe for disaster. Especially if you’ve got a large team or even multiple teams.

This is where a phased approach can help.

This involves—you guessed it—phasing your return to the office. As a result, you can test the waters and see how things are working before you go full throttle.

So, how can you implement a phased approach?

There are three options to choose from:

  • Phase employee return: Gradually return employees to the office to reduce the number of people in the office at one time. For example, you might start with your marketing team first, then your sales team, and so on.
  • Offer staggered work times: Provide staggered schedules for in-office working. For example, the marketing team works in the office Monday and Tuesday, and the sales team does Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
  • Offer remote-first working: Instead of returning to the office full time, take one of the hybrid approaches we mentioned earlier and let your employees work from anywhere, with occasional (necessary) trips into the office.

If you don’t want to use a phased or partial approach, consider using a trial period instead. For instance, you could set a three-month experiment to see how things go with everyone back in the office. Towards the end of the trial, you can analyze how things went, figure out if there’s any room for improvement, or scrap it altogether and return to remote working.

Both of these options require an open mind on your part, which shows employees that you’re open to new ideas. If it’s not right, it’s not right—and you’re willing to listen.

6. Put employee wellbeing before KPIs

It’s easy for leaders to let their emotions get the better of them, especially when they’re faced with pressure to drive results.

However, much like during the pandemic, adjustments take time. You can’t expect to snap your fingers and have everything back to the way it was. Sorry if we’ve burst that bubble for you. Everyone who is making a return to the office needs to adjust all over again.

So, when it comes to returning to the office, you need to prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of your staff above all else.

Employees feel that stress negatively impacts their workplace performance. So if your team is struggling mentally, it’s pretty unlikely you’d reach your KPIs anyway.

Give everyone the time they need to get back into the swing of things and don’t push too hard. That means choosing the right moment. If you’re preparing for an intense quarter, it might not be the right time to return to the office. If you really must return, who says it needs to happen right now anyway?

7. In the words of Simon Sinek, start with “why”

It’s important to communicate the reason for returning to the office.

Why?

For a few reasons:

  • Encourage open communication: Everyone in your team deserves to know why you’re returning to the office. Whether your company culture depends on it or you think it’ll fill some collaboration gaps, make this transparent with your team. Your openness will encourage them to communicate with you and share their ideas and reservations.
  • Give your employees another perspective: If you have some employees who are hesitant to return to the office, the reasoning behind the move could change their opinion. If they never know why you’re enforcing the move back into the office, you might struggle to get them on board.
  • Understand why you want to return in the first place: Piecing together why you want to return to the office is also a great way to figure out if you need to in the first place. But you should also consider if a return is even the right move in the first place.

So make sure you’re open and honest about why you want everyone back in the office. It’s helpful for everyone involved.

How leading organizations are structuring their return to the office

Now let’s take a look at how some of the big hitters are planning their return to the office. We’ll keep it short and sweet to focus on the most important elements.

Google

Google has recently been in the news for postponing their return to the office to January 2022.

They’ve reassessed their initial plan because of the Covid-19 cases linked to the highly contagious Delta variant.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • Hybrid working: Google is currently using a hybrid working model. Some employees are working on-site, while others are working at home.
  • Vaccines: Google requires employees to have a Covid-19 vaccine to work on-site.
  • Work-from-home policy: As we’ve already mentioned, Google has extended its voluntary return-to-office policy until January 2022. They said:

“We are excited that we’ve started to reopen our campuses and encourage Googlers who feel safe coming to sites that have already opened to continue doing so. At the same time, we recognize that many Googlers are seeing spikes in their communities caused by the Delta variant and are concerned about returning to the office. This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it.”

From what we can see, Google is doing a pretty good job. They’re putting the health and safety of the employees above all else, making sure everyone returns to the office when it’s safe and when they’re comfortable to do so.

Their communication is also incredibly open and considerate. However, they haven’t outlined what will happen to employees who don’t want the vaccine, so their communication is lacking there.

Ford

Similar to Google, Ford has also delayed its return to the office until January 2022.

Let’s take a look at the information available:

  • Flexible hybrid system: Ford planned to bring employees back into the office with a flexible hybrid work model. The system will let employees work from home and only come into the office for meetings and team-building activities. 
  • Vaccines: There’s currently no requirement for employees working in the office to have a coronavirus vaccination. However, there are speculations that this is something they’re considering. Here’s what Ford had to say:

“We’re collecting feedback from employees around why they would or would not get vaccinated.”

Ford is putting the hybrid model to good use. They’re only bringing employees into the office when it’s necessary to do so (e.g., relationship-building events and necessary meetings).

Their communication in terms of their plans and taking employee feedback into account seems to be pretty strong, too. They’ve openly said that they’re getting feedback from their team about vaccinations, so that’s a good sign.

Not to mention, Ford revealed in a Bloomberg interview that 95% of their global nonproduction staff reported wanting a mix of home and office work post-pandemic. And Ford is delivering.

Key takeaways 

By now, you’ve got a pretty good understanding of how you can prepare your remote team to head back to the office.

But do you need to go back to the office?

Before you put anything in motion, you need to figure out if this really is the best thing for your staff and your business.

Whether you decide to return to the office or not, make sure you’re set up with the right tools and platforms to enable communication and collaboration. Yac’s async communication platform allows teams to stay on the same page without needing all the meetings.

Whether you’re a remote team, a hybrid team, or a fully in-office team, book a demo to see how we can help you streamline your communication today.