Work at the Office, Win a New Car!

The pros and cons of giving incentives to employees who are reluctant to return to the office.

To motivate reluctant people to get a COVID-19 vaccine, governments and companies have turned, with some degree of success, to bribery. Get the vaccine, the groups say, and you can get baseball tickets, cash, beer, and even a chance to win $1 million.

Now leaders are wondering whether those tactics might work on another reluctant group: employees who don’t want to return to working at the office. Since April, one global real estate firm has been randomly rewarding $10,000 each day to a vaccinated employee who has returned to working in a physical office and expects to continue the practice through the summer. Other firms have offered returning employees cash, extra days off, and chances to win cars or vacations.

Many leaders remain convinced that their organizations will work best when employees are working together in the same place at least some of the time, and they hope that doling out prizes will at least get employees back through the door. “These are ways to get people there and remind them why they like working with other people in person,” says Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global solution leader of organizational strategy. 

The “where should employees work?” issue has become an increasingly perplexing dilemma for leaders. Whether employees would actually walk away rather than return to the office is up for debate, but every month in 2021 has brought at least one survey highlighting workers’ reluctance to going back to the office. When the business software company Limeade surveyed 4,500 workers in April, every single respondent thought returning to the office was a source of anxiety. The top sources of the stress include being exposed to COVID-19, losing work flexibility, the return of commuting, having to wear a mask at the office, and a need for childcare.

Some companies used incentives to get office dwellers back to the workplace during the thick of the pandemic. Some offered free lunches, while others gave employees money to cover gas, parking, or other commuting costs. Those additional benefits often didn’t end up adding to a company’s overall costs since they were offset by companies having lower utility bills, travel expenses, and other variable costs during the pandemic.

But now, many organizations have just told people a date when to return to the office. No gifts. No food. No trips. Indeed, some employers have opted to use sticks over carrots to get workers to come back. Some employers have called employees who don’t want to return to their offices unmotivated. Others have even threatened to take away benefits, or worse. Blain says a senior executive at one of his client firms suggested firing any employee who was unwilling to return to the office, an idea the company CEO shot down.

For those who do want to try incentivizing people back to the office, experts say rather than using game-show-style prizes like vacations or cars, leaders should think about more utilitarian rewards. Transportation and childcare costs remain a significant concern among employees, so bringing back temporary subsidies to offset those costs might be appreciated by workers, says Mark Royal, senior director of Korn Ferry Advisory. Just be careful about making big long-term investments, such as raises for returning employees. “Don’t make any commitments that will lock them in for longer than three months,” Blain says.

Regardless of whether a company uses incentives, leaders have to communicate to employees why it’s important that they come back. The office gives employees the chance to bring clients together and collaborate with teammates. “The message is that coming to the office is for an active purpose, not just because it’s Tuesday,” Royal says.