5 Unorthodox Ways to Lure Office Workers Back

As RTO efforts continue to struggle, experts suggest contrarian strategies to persuade workers. 

The executive was stumped. After two years of hybrid work, management had called workers back to the office. Three weeks later, office-occupancy numbers were still low, with some staffers simply working from home, and others doing everything in their power to dodge or truncate their in-office days. Was it time to lay down the law? 

Organizations worldwide are struggling to attract workers back to the office: US occupancies for September are at 52%, according to data from Kastle Systems—and though that figure is a third higher than a year ago, offices are still far from bustling. (New York City, for instance, remains stuck at 38% occupancy.) Experts say that this precarious moment is the time to find new ways to motivate returns to office. “If you don’t create a magnet to bring people in, then you run the risk that employees will focus on inconveniences and costs, and miss the upsides and magic of being together,” says Miriam Nelson, senior client partner in assessment and succession at Korn Ferry. 

But just what would that magnet be? Experts say that this may be the perfect opportunity to try a contrarian strategy, one that’s not simply different from the past year’s approaches, but also surprising. Here are five: 

Create Fear of Missing Out. 

Nelson says that this is best done by stacking each workday with a couple of appealing events. For example, a typical workday might include a 45-minute afternoon-learning session and an end-of-day cocktail hour, or a midday Food Truck + Friends gathering—anything that your particular employees will love. Nelson suggests identifying a few things that employees want, which can only be discovered by coming into the office. Is it an end-of-day kickball tournament? Friday pub lunch? The 3 p.m. ice-cream truck? Or mentor-mentee one-on-ones? “Create those pulls,” says Nelson. “A good lunch will always bring people in.”

Offer interaction with leadership. 

Do you know what always gets ambitious workers into the office? Opportunities to mingle with the C-suite, particularly with leaders who are typically inaccessible. Employees will also show up in strong numbers for chances to make professional contacts, whether in other divisions or other companies. “It’s all about leaders being more visible and accessible,” says Elise Freedman, leader of the Workforce Transformation practice at Korn Ferry. She suggests that these opportunities can be paired with learning sessions about other departments or specialties. 

Redesign how the office is used. 

An alluring office is not just about the physical space, says Dan Pulver, senior client partner in infrastructure, construction and services, real estate, and sustainability at Korn Ferry. Team members will eagerly show up for work that gives them a meaningful reason to be in the office. “It comes down to how we work more than where we work,” he says. He suggests that rather than mandating in-office days, managers simply design in-office days around collaboration. For example, a manager might do Monday meetings outdoors to brainstorm. “If amenities tie in with those activities, all the better.” Pulver knows of companies that have added smoothie bars and gyms and sees an uptick in the hiring of people with hospitality backgrounds to create better workspace experiences. 

Attract diverse populations. 

The groups typically most hesitant to return to the office are the ones who find in-office time the least harmonious with their caretaking commitments. “A lot of back-to-office schedules are designed based on what works for senior leaders,” says Alina Polonskaia, global leader in the DE&I consulting practice at Korn Ferry. “Look at the people who are struggling the most, and design for them too.” This will result in inclusive work arrangements that meet the needs of the whole workforce, particularly workers who were previously not enticed by RTO efforts. 

Pay all costs. 

Getting to the office can be time-consuming and expensive, especially when adding up the costs of train tickets, gas, and lunches. Experts say that companies can address those obstacles simply by paying their costs through programs like parking and transportation vouchers, corporate gas cards, and free lunches. It’s a small price to pay for RTO participation. “Incentivize people to come in,” says Flo Falayi, associate client partner in leadership development and executive coaching at Korn Ferry. “Pizza Thursday goes a long way in helping me come in on Thursdays. I look forward to it.”