Managing the Back-to-Office Change in 2023

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Since COVID-19 upended work life as we knew it, many company leaders have been looking forward to a return to the office (RTO). Fall 2022 marked a tipping point for numerous organizations.

To name just a few.

Various other businesses pushed off RTO plans until the New Year. In fact, within a few weeks, as many as 9 in 10 companies could have employees back on site.

Workers aren’t necessarily in agreement with these designs, however. More than one-third of employees who can do their jobs remotely want to continue, according to Gallup research

If you’re among the organizations expecting a full office come January, an effective change management plan can help minimize backlash, ease the transition, and reduce negative impacts, such as turnover. 

Here are a few tips.

#1 Communicate the Vision

Returning to the office just because that’s how things were always done pre-pandemic isn’t the most inspiring message. To maximize buy-in, communicate the reasons for and benefits of RTO. 

How will bringing people together in the office support the organization’s strategy, build culture, enable better collaboration, or achieve other goals? Explaining these facets are as important—or more so—than the logistical details about who must return, when, and on which days.

#2 Set and Monitor Goals

Spending 40 hours per week in the office doesn’t by itself boost engagement or make group projects go more smoothly—or so the research says. If these types of benefits are in your sights, you’ll need to devise strategies to achieve them.

In other words, set goals for your RTO, monitor results, and continually refine your plans and policies. You might define performance improvements you hope to see, or on the other hand, set a quit rate you don’t want to exceed.

#3 Make it Better than They Remember

Why return to normal when you can return to better? Accept that there are tradeoffs for employees who come back to the office. A commute may once again shorten morning time with the kids, and the dog may pout after being left alone all day. 

Counterbalance these experiences with positive ones. Whether through fun events, new collaboration spaces, or little office perks, give employees something to look forward to with the RTO.

#4 Ask for Input

Mandates from above are almost by definition unpopular. Policies over which employees feel as if they’ve had a say tend to fare much better. 

Listen to employees’ objections to RTO and see if there are ways to help. If you can offer hybrid work arrangements or ad hoc flexibility, invite workers to weigh in on the rules that will apply. If you must demand 100% on-site work, ask what the company can do to make the transition easier. 

That way, employees become partners in the change, not merely subjects of it.

#5 Phase It In

Allow people to adjust their mindset—and their lives—to the new schedule. They may need to explore when it’s best to shop for groceries, reestablish childcare structures, get the car tuned up, or shift their sleep schedule to allow for an early departure.

By easing into the change, you let employees address these and other issues in bite-sized nuggets, rather than overwhelm them all at once.

#6 Question Your Communications

Throughout the transition, communicate, communicate, communicate. Oh, you already do that? Well, only 42% of employees say their company communicates well—so you may want to check in to see if your efforts are as clear, empathetic, and effective as you believe. 

#7 Offer Coaching

Many employees benefit from guidance on how to best leverage hybrid and flexible work schedules or keep the quality of life gains they made when working from home. 

What types of tasks are best performed remotely? How can employees use office time with colleagues to greatest positive effect (and enjoyment!)? Are there techniques that can help them balance life and on-site work more effectively? 

Think of RTO as a skill. Employees have gotten a little rusty. Coach them back into shape.

#8 Stay Centered on Values

People want to perform meaningful work and make real contributions to their companies and communities. The best way to manage the change, position RTO as part and parcel of the organization’s core mission. 

Make sure to walk the walk. Find ways to use in-person activities to ramp-up activities that align with your values—not just for the first week or two after returning but as a long-term plan. 

If your workplace expectations reflect the organization’s deepest “why,” you’ll do more than implement a successful RTO change management plan, you’ll strengthen the foundation for all your talent recruitment, retention, and engagement efforts.

Now that would be an incredible outcome in 2023.

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