Pivoting Your Return-to-Office Playbook

Experts say two years into the office/home merry-go-around, firms may be able to adopt strategies that can last—to a point. 

The new COVID-19 variant has once again pivoted return-to-office plans

A new round of blurred and shifting return-to-work policies is plaguing knowledge workers around the country. These days, “return to work” is such a ubiquitous phrase it has become an acronym: RTO. 

With the rise of Omicron, employees and managers alike are stuck on yet another rotation of office closures, semi-reopenings, and hybrid work arrangements. “A few months ago there was optimism,” says Brian Bloom, vice president for global benefits at Korn Ferry, who heads the firm’s return-to-office efforts.“ But we had to pivot quickly once Omicron hit, and now we’re back in the holding pattern.”

Leading through the return to office holding pattern is challenging. 

“Most organizations have done at least three 180-turns on return-to-office plans, so we’re basically going around in circles,” says Juan Pablo Gonzalez, professional services sector leader at Korn Ferry.

The majority of employees still commute to work  

To be sure, the majority of employees still commute into work: only around 1 in 5 workers can complete their jobs remotely. But those roughly 20% comprise tens of millions of U.S. workers—nearly all of white-collar America—whose professional whereabouts need to be decided and managed. 

Build your return to office scenario playbook 

Two years in, experts say, managers can be confident that there is at least one solution. 

“You can’t plan, but you can build on experience,” says González. He suggests that employers develop a playbook of two to three possible scenarios and one or two organizational responses to each of those. These should be communicated ahead of time, he says, so that employees know that the company has a plan and so they know what to expect. 

Answer why employees are returning to the office

Before heading down that path, says Miriam Nelson, senior client partner for Assessment and Succession at Korn Ferry, leaders might want to think through why employees are being asked to return to the office. “The ‘why’ is really getting lost,” she says. Returning to cubicles to toil alone just as workers did at home is not the answer, she says. “It’s about maximizing productivity while they’re at work.” This effort can even start small, with movement toward personalizing the in-office experience, Nelson says. If companies don’t already allow employees to decorate or customize their offices or workspaces, she says, they should do so now, so workers don’t feel like nameless numbers in a generic setting. “Depersonalization is not good for employee performance,” Nelson says. 

Communicate remote working as a pause – not indefinite

These efforts aside, the constant shifts in policy may be still difficult for some employees to swallow, particularly those who appreciate stability or who have logged significant hours arranging their office returns. Bloom suggests framing current office closures as a pause, a psychologically gentler concept than plan scrapping. A closure can be explained this way as well to those readying the workplace for returning employees, he says. He suggests explaining that “we’re pausing this work, and we’ll pick it back up when the time is right.”

Refer to local mandates and policies

Bloom emphasizes that any return-to-office decisions need to be based on local COVID-19 positions. But this does not mean that health-and-safety policies should be specific only to COVID-19, says Jill Wiltfong, chief marketing officer at Korn Ferry. Health-and-safety regulations aimed solely at the scenarios created by one virus “will get you into tricky situations when scaling out across the organization,” she says. 

Return to office policies should always put employees first

The way in which these broad policies about health and safety are communicated is everything, says Elise Freedman, Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice leader. When expressing an RTO policy, she says, the talking points should include, “we care”, “we’re listening,” and “we’re figuring out how to best protect employees and also meet business objectives.” In other words, emphasize empathy, safety, and agility.