Employees Don’t Want To Return To Office, Now What?

by Mike Petrusky on July 26, 2022
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Hybrid Work Looked Like the Perfect Solution to Save the Office. Is It Working?

Hybrid work looked like the perfect way to drum up support for the return to office. But some organizations found their employees are not returning to office life without a fight. So, what can leaders do when their return-to-office plans aren’t working?

“One of the constraints of hybrid working,” according to HOK’s Gordon Wright, “is the human factor.”

Earlier this month, I asked Gordon about many of the challenges hybrid and distributed working presents for today’s organizations — including the Great Resignation, the emotional impact of the return to office, dealing with performance challenges, and creating equitable work experiences.

During our conversation, we weighed in on leadership’s current role and the level of responsibility leaders have when it comes to creating work environments built for the future. We also looked at the difficulty of making decisions in these high-stakes moments — and why the return to office and cost of office space per employee will require taking some calculated risks.

Watch the recording anytime on demand.

Highlights from our conversation were also aired in a recent episode of the Workplace Innovator podcast, a show where I speak with corporate real estate and facility management leaders about the industry trends and technologies that are impacting organizations like yours.

Listen to the podcast episode: Hybrid Work Looked Like the Perfect Solution to Save the Office. Is It Working?

As we explored the discrepancies between traditional workplace environments and what employees hope to use the office moving forward, several common themes emerged around not returning to office versus being in the office full time.

We covered a lot of ground in our discussion, so I recommend either going back and watching the full recording of our talk or listening to the 30-minute podcast episode if you’re short on time.

If you’d rather read about it, here is a summary with a few key take-aways you can keep in mind while considering how to overcome the complexity of your own return to office.

Will your employees return to work?

The return to work — and even more so, how to manage the new hybrid workplace — has become one of the hottest topics for the C-Suite, from Gordon’s viewpoint.

And they’re dealing with some big questions:

How am I going to engage my employees?
How am I going to continue to innovate?
How am I going to continue to lead this organization?

As Gordon shared with me, balancing all of this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges organizations will face over the next five years.

“Many CEOs not only have their employees to answer to, but a board of directors — who expect performance — as well.”

Research from Gensler shows that even for the employees who want to return, most don’t want to return to the office full time.

Why some employees don’t want to return to the office

For some, the reasons not to return to the office are compelling.

People are challenging the notion of conventional work arrangements — including what they want from their in-office experiences, how they engage with their office space, and the types of interactions they have with each other and the environment.

“In the United States, we are at about 22-25% utilization on any given month. We are also leading the world in the highest level of employees who do not want to return to the office.”

 Through the experience of being away from the office for two years, people have developed habits they don’t want to break now.

This new social dynamic creates the potential for unease, anxiety, and conflict in the workplace. As a result, a poorly thought-out return to work policy might be one of the biggest reasons not to return to the office from your employees’ point of view.

As you begin the transition back into the office, you must account for the changes that have been made to people’s lives over the course of the pandemic.

But as research has shown, the best designed office isn’t necessarily the best office. The best office is one that best supports the function of your employees.

Gordon puts it this way, “For the folks who were asked to come back to the office — if when they left, didn’t feel their office supported their work function or they didn’t need to be in that space to do their work — can be really hard to get back.”

And one thing is certain. Sitting, waiting, or doing nothing aren’t likely to be successful strategies. In fact, the organizations who have started to lag behind are already having difficulties attracting and retaining talent.

So, what can leaders do? Gordon says leaders should respond — not react. The distinction: “Response is thoughtful; it has a plan.” Be transparent with your plan and then communicate what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it.

“Leaders should respond — not react. Response is thoughtful; it has a plan.”

Return to work strategy

Here’s what I really wanted to know, so I asked Gordon:

Hybrid work looked like the perfect solution to save the office — but is it working?

This is what he told me:

“I can’t give a yes or no, but when applied right and thoughtfully, it can work. When the opposite happens, it really doesn’t work very well at all.”

The truth is that organizations and workplaces are still evolving. This is not a fixed solution, and I don’t think we’re going to have fixed solution for a period of time.

Now is the time for working through things such as:

  • How does hybrid work?
  • How do we need to manage it?
  • How do we need to monitor it?
  • And what do we need to change about it to make it work for our organization?

Pointing to research from the Leesman Index, Gordon emphasizes the importance for leaders to start readying their organizations for the future.

According to Leesman’s Workplace 2021 report, there are three steps for appraising your organization’s future readiness.

  1. People: Putting employees’ purpose first
  2. Place: Going big so employees don’t just stay home
  3. Time: Acting now, with urgency

In the report, Leesman says one of the most significant actions you can take is to acknowledge what you’ve learned and take it into your future strategy. So, ask yourself what has been successful and identify what isn’t working and incorporate those lessons into your organization’s return to office plans.

How to make returning to work easier

Invest in the right return to office technology

Technology is changing the world of workplace, especially when it comes to making decisions around design and space management.

“I think we’ve all gotten a lot more comfortable talking about technology because I think one of the things that drove that was the fact that we’re working from home and if your technology doesn’t work, you instantly become an outsider, you’re outside the conversation.”

You need to have a good idea of when people want to come in — and which resources they’ll need in order to achieve that day’s priorities. Having a platform for managing room reservations, desk booking, and wayfinding is a great way to give workplace managers a head start on planning without slowing employees down.

And if your employee experience solutions provide you with a way to track, monitor, and analyze your data, you’ll also have a treasure trove of helpful insights. For instance, you can use utilization information to allocate space in a way that serves your employees’ needs and primary focus.

That kind of intel is invaluable in today’s data-driven world — particularly at a time when the value of the office is under so much scrutiny. After all, if you give employees an experience worth commuting to work for, that’s more than half the battle.

Lead with transparency

“Be transparent, but also remind employees that we’re all going to have to be agile because some of what we try may not work. We all need to provide that feedback and then adapt.”

“Work life is such a dominating factor in who we are as people, our identity, and what we do all day long, Monday through Friday…when you take that and turn it upside down it’s not only that it changed us over the last 27-28 months. I think it’s going to have impacts over the next 10 years.”

You can access the recorded discussion on demand as we explore topics such as:

  • Best practices for creating a hybrid ecosystem
  • 12-point plan for supporting distributed teams
  • What’s the next phase of workplace evolution?
  • How will people engage with their colleagues?
  • What’s changing about our in-office interactions?

Get those insights and more when you watch the full recorded conversation.


Mike Petrusky

Mike Petrusky is host of the “Workplace Innovator Podcast” and Director of Events and Growth Marketing at iOFFICE. He joined iOFFICE in March of 2018 with a mission to energize the company’s live events. He is a dynamic speaker, podcaster, and seasoned marketer who has a passion for sharing iOFFICE’s unique brand of thought leadership to CRE & FM leaders in the digital workplace.

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