Future of Work Wednesdays: New RTO Plans Hinge on Flexibility & Employee Experience

Britta Schellenberg
Britta Schellenberg
Published on 
3.9.2022

As Spring arrives and COVID-19 cases blessedly wane, CEOs and business leaders are responding by ramping up Return to Office (RTO) plans (again). We’ve been down this road before, as all the delayed and modified RTO plans of the past have proven. 

Employers would be wise to continue focusing on flexibility, not just because of COVID-19 safety concerns and the possibility of new variants (cue the collective groan), but also because employee expectations have changed dramatically over the past two years. Organizations can’t push some magic “reset button” and suddenly return to 2019, no matter how badly the CEO wants to. 

Use RTO to Continue Rethinking Work

A recent article from Inc. magazine on RTO plans hits the right tone: don’t treat your current RTO plan as a perfect fit for all employees. Instead, rethink what work means, what your goals are, and what specific tasks and roles are best suited to the office (and which are not). We’ve all reimagined work over the last two years, so don’t stop reimagining now.  

Remember that employee and employer attitudes about RTO plans have differed dramatically over the last year. Pushback will come and so will changing circumstances: be ready to pivot.

Employers need to listen, because (says Inc.) “it's helpful to understand why an employee may not want to return to the office. Working parents may find that remote work helps them to better balance child care, and disabled employees may find that it better accommodates them.” One size will not fit all.

RTO must be enabled, not simply announced with an “important message from our CEO.” Technology must be deployed to connect employees to the office, or as Inc. puts it, “consider how your team can stay synced when some workers are in-person and others are remote.” Think “phygital” workspaces that blend the physical office with connective technologies.

Listen to Employees (Or Don’t, then Watch Them Leave) 

It’s one thing to understand that the employee experience needs to be prioritized – but it’s quite another thing to deliver that experience every day. Don’t assume you know what you don’t know: for instance, not every employee has the same hopes and goals related to hybrid work. 

To enable RTO plans to be effective today and tomorrow, build your organization’s capacity to (1) sense employee needs via ongoing data collection/feedback loops and (2) respond to employee needs with appropriate solutions. 

You can use Robin data, for example, to help you determine the ideal distribution of employees in on-site spaces, or to inform how to optimally configure your workspace. You can also use Robin to survey employees about their in-office experience, then use their feedback to make changes big (reconfiguring workspace) and small (adding healthier snacks). That “sense and respond” capability is essential.

Employers Vs. Employees: The Next Round of an Ongoing Face-Off

A recent Wall Street Journal “On the Clock” column explains that (once again) employers are significantly more excited about RTO plans than employees are. The column, Sorry Bosses, Workers Are Just Not That Into You (btw, my favorite headline of 2022), quotes Jason Alvarez Schorr, a 36-year-old software engineer who quit his NYC job in January, when his former employer signaled an office return was imminent: “You’re not going to get me on the train for two hours for free bagels,” said Schorr, who now has a new job allowing him to work remotely from the Caribbean (we can assume he doesn’t miss the NYC subway system). 

A must-read Washington Post article, Who Will Win the Great RTO Face-Off, envisions an ongoing tug-of-war between employers and employees over RTO plans for the spring. Employers are aggressively pushing RTO, says WaPo, asking: “How will new recruits be trained and acculturated . . .if the old hands are working from home? And how will companies continue to innovate if workers don’t bump into each other by accident and shoot the breeze over coffee?”

Employees will continue demanding flexibility and (like Mr. Schorr) changing companies if they don’t get enough of it. Remote work “during the pandemic has not only allowed [employees] to reconnect with their families, pets and neighbors. It has also taught them that they can be just as productive . . .if they are freed from the time-suck of the commute and the petty distractions of the office,” says WaPo.

2019 Has Left and Gone Away, Hey, Hey, Hey . . .

The balance of power has shifted toward workers in the last year, as The Great Resignation has shown. Organizations are split between those who understand and accommodate the need to deliver good employee experiences (i.e., those who deploy “sense and respond” capabilities around employee experience) and those who eagerly await the return to 2019. 

Guess what? Employees don’t want to (and won’t) return to the “not-so-good ol’ days” of 2019. Nostalgia-obsessed organizations betting on a “grand reset” will see their employees voting with their feet. 

This newsletter is called The Future of Work, not Let’s Reset to 2019. That's for a good reason: we’re moving forward to a new era of work and it is flexible.

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