With so many organizations still working to figure out office occupancy, leaders are trying a variety of tactics to draw their people back to in-person work—and seeing mixed results. Although return-to-office rates are projected to keep increasing gradually, occupancy remains below pre-pandemic levels. A survey from late last year by the Partnership for New York City found that only 9% of Manhattan office workers were in the office full time; The New York Times reports that the lower demand for office space appears to be permanent.
Although these are drastic changes, organizations don’t have to give up on in-person work, but they do have to give people a good reason to make the commute. According to global workplace research from Gensler, workers say—across industries, countries, and generations—that face-to-face connection with colleagues is the top reason to be in the workplace.
Hybrid and remote work are here to stay. For organizations to attract quality hires and get them to use their offices, leaders should focus on giving their people meaningful opportunities to build relationships with colleagues, grow their careers, and work in their preferred way.
The Evolving Nature of the Workplace
People are driven by connection. To be at our best, we need the support of others in both our personal and professional lives, and an environment where we can excel. It’s difficult to thrive in a culture where people may be physically in the office but chained to their laptop for calls all day. These environments also breed concerns over a lack of trust, as people may feel they’re only in the office to prove they’re being productive.
Leaders should remember why the office matters—it makes aligning with colleagues easy. If a company culture emphasizes collaboration and aligned purpose, teams are more drawn to in-person engagement to propel their work forward. Without clear intentions and a reason to be together in person, many workers may see little reason to leave the comforts of home.
Each organization has to showcase not only what the workplace is for, but also why being there is relevant. What are you solving together? How are you collectively moving the organization forward? The reasons will vary from company to company but given how much change has occurred over the past few years, leaders must push past uncertainty and find internal alignment on what their workplace can offer to employees.
Prior to the pandemic, companies often provided gimmicky perks like onsite ping-pong tables or salons to attract people to the workplace. However, in our current environment, these may seem like desperate attempts to draw workers to the office without fully understanding what they require to be at their best.
People having varying needs at work. For example, younger professionals may want to be in the office to meet new friends and find mentors; others may require more flexibility due to the circumstances of their lives. This has always been the case—if your work demands uninterrupted attention to detail, a noisy office environment may be an impediment. Similarly, if the nature of your job requires high collaboration and whiteboarding to be productive, the emphasis on at-home work over the past few years has likely slowed your productivity.
There are also employees whose at-home conditions may not be conductive to work due to issues like space constraints, family members or roommates, and unreliable internet access. A huge portion of the workforce is not able to work remotely, and they require a supportive and safe environment to do their jobs. Whatever the case may be, organizations will find significant value in learning what their people need and responding accordingly.
When employees feel they have the autonomy to be in control of their schedules and trust that their employer will support them, employee engagement increases. People need to feel they aren’t going to be left out because of their need for flexibility; for example, someone who picks their children up from school missing out on a promotion because they aren’t in the office as much as another colleague.
A major differentiator for organizations is an inclusive environment that is open minded about how work gets done. This goes back to the question of what your workplace is for—by offering flexibility coupled with a space designed for the specific needs of your team, employers can help their people make the right decisions and trade-offs around where they choose to work.
If leaders understand how work gets done at their organization, what inefficiencies impact their people day to day, and where they need more resources, they can provide a better environment where people feel support and a sense of belonging.
Society had decades to implement the construct of office work before 2020—leaders should show grace to themselves and their employees as we navigate this unknown territory. While it will take dedication and effort, the steps we take now will help shape not only the future of work, but also how people find meaning in what they do.