Return to What?

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By Mark Mohammadpour, APR

Every day, I chat with someone about an update to their company’s return to office policy. I typically hear one of three statements:

  1. “We’re supposed to go into the office three days per week, but it’s not enforced.”
  2. “I go into the office, and there’s no one else there. It’s a waste of my time. I spend two hours a day commuting. Why am I here?”
  3. “We all go into the office, but all we do is stare at our computers and work. I don’t even work with anyone in my office!”

And here lies the problem with “return to office.”

We haven’t defined “return” and “office” in the current and future state of work. Business leaders: My call to action is to define these two words for your company and discuss them with your employees before implementing a return-to-office policy.

Let’s take a step back. I talk with a wide range of members of the PR profession — from agency account executives and in-house PR managers to CCOs and agency CEOs.

Learning on the job is a significant issue. New professionals are eager to learn, and business leaders want their employees to learn faster.

The value of learning from others in an in-person environment is immeasurable. The problem, however, is twofold: 

  • Employees have made significant adjustments to their personal life while working full-time from home, from moving to another city to childcare. According to research from HR software company Gusto, “48% of workers said that the ability to work from home some or all of the time would be a major or the most important factor in determining whether to accept a job offer in the future.” Companies, are you listening?
  • When companies send out corporatewide policies saying, “We need everyone in three times per week,” they haven’t explained why and how it will be a different (and positive) employee experience.

Every company needs to be able to answer two questions:

How are we defining ‘return?’ 

Be as specific as possible. “Come in twice per week” does little for your employees. What activities are we prioritizing for our employees while in the office? If your team comes into the office and all they do is sit at their desk conducting video calls, then that’s not a great use of their time. 

Get granular if you want your team to come in twice per week. One example: “From 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, please be in the office to discuss news trends, conduct brainstorms and host actionable in-person meetings with your teams. Otherwise, continue working from home for the rest of the week.”

What activities should employees prioritize at home? 

Save your meetings and brainstorming sessions to in-person discussions and spend time at home on your day-to-day heads down activities — writing, pitching, planning, research, and other activities requiring focus and concentration. Please encourage your teams to set boundaries while at home. 

Another issue I hear is that because it’s easier to start working, people working from home are working longer hours, which causes burnout. Set boundaries with your team and stick with them, especially on nights and weekends.

In short:

  • When in the office, prioritize learning and leadership time.
  • When at home, prioritize deadlines and to-do lists.

Finally, listen to your employees. Conduct quantitative and qualitative research before implementing a policy. It will save you and your employees time and money.

The faster we can answer, “Return to what?” the better it is for companies and the well-being of their employees. 

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