Will Office Returnees ‘Behave'?

As leaders think about bringing their people back, which remote working habits do they want workers to keep—or break?

At the beginning of this month, as more of his employees were contemplating returning to work at the office, the head of a consulting firm’s UK office sent a polite but firm email to his colleagues. The request: please dress properly when coming to the office.

It seems like a potential nightmare vision for leaders: an office full of pajama-bottom wearing employees. But while that’s not likely, two years of having workers away from the office has created the worry that’s people’s habits and business protocols have fallen off. The question now for leaders may come down to this: Which traits do they want their staff to keep—and which should staffers leave at home.

To be sure, some employees embraced some admirable habits while working remotely, including becoming more comfortable with technology and working with colleagues in multiple locations. Those good habits helped numerous companies achieve record profitability. Experts say leaders have to find ways to support people to continue those habits in the workplace, whether they are working full-time at the office or just part of the workweek.

But managers also worry that people may get “sloppy” at work, dressing down too much, texting during group meetings, and forgetting a host of other protocols. Accustomed to working at home even when they were sick, some employees might come in sick, while other former remote workers who could work at all odd hours at home might stay at the office at strange hours.  “People have gotten used to be casual,” says Paul Lambert, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s workplace transformation practice globally.

There are multiple wrinkles to get employees to change habits. For one thing, there’s two years worth of Gen Z-aged employees who graduated during the pandemic and have never worked in an office environment, says Andy DeMarco, Korn Ferry’s vice president for human resources in the Americas. “Are leaders equipped to field and address those questions and concerns,” DeMarco asks.

At the same time, experts say organizations should be cognizant of how some of the expectations about office decorum might not have been particularly inclusive. One of the equalizers of the pandemic has been that employees of underrepresented groups have felt that they have been on more equal footing during the remote work era – there were no exclusive lunches or clique-filled happy hours – only the work mattered.

The good news, at least from leaders’ perspective, is that the act of returning to the office may help their employees modify their habits. A 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania found evidence of a “fresh start effect,” which suggests that people have a higher likelihood to adopt healthier behaviors following landmarks such as the New Year, birthdays or even just the first day of the month. Returning to the workplace, experts say, qualifies as a fresh start (perhaps assuming a company has workers return to the office on the first day of the month).

Leaders can also help shape employee behavior by modifying the office physical environment.  “We see firms ripping desks out, just creating a different kind of space,” says Lambert. The ultimate goal of these changes is to encourage real-time in-person teamwork.

Whatever organizations decide that they should strive for consistency, experts say. Having a formal dress code in one office while employees can wear whatever they want in another office could cause confusion and grumblings among all employees. “You can’t just impose something without having the guiding principles behind it,” says Juan Pablo Gonzalez, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of the firm’s Professional Services practice.