The big picture: HR executives are spearheading the reboarding, or return to work, of remote employees to physical offices. Business leaders must resolve questions around impact, equity and the effect on productivity, while employees must relearn how to work together.
By the numbers: Less than one-third of knowledge workers believe their organization makes it worthwhile for them to commute. Nearly half say their companies are not doing enough to make reboarding appealing.
Making it work: Reboarding policies and plans will vary by organization, but effective approaches will address these focal points:
- Let organizational culture shape reboarding plans, communications and policies
- Ensure transparent communication
- Be vigilant for any sign of bias
- Avoid broad-brush solutions and ambiguity
- Consider new opportunities and innovations
Go deeper: Read our insights below.
Three years ago, global human resource (HR) leaders pulled the largest, quickest and most difficult workforce mobilization in history after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of a global pandemic. Today, HR executives have to spearhead another momentous workforce shift – the reboarding, or return to work, of remote employees to physical offices – that is proving even more difficult.
That’s not to underestimate the magnitude of the COVID-driven shift from corporate offices to home offices, spare bedrooms and kitchen tables. But in the spring of 2020, HR’s role boiled down to getting all employees to a safe place and then getting them productive. This was by no means easy, but it was straightforward.
Contrast that two-step strategy with the complex collection of challenges and risks that have hindered or thwarted so many return-to-the-office game plans in the past 12 months, including:
- Worries about sustaining new work-life balances
- Dread associated with resuming long commutes
- Anxieties about interpersonal communications
- Remote versus hybrid versus five-days-a-week decisions
- Preferential-treatment risks based on workers’ proximity to managers
- Other employee-equity imbalances
- Concerns about in-office productivity
Unlike the massive shift to remote work, reboarding challenges and impacts vary wildly across different job roles (e.g., a sales leader versus a website content writer), generational cohorts and responsibilities (e.g., a manager with a dozen direct reports versus a senior programmer with no people-management duties). These challenges are not easy and are exceedingly complex.
Addressing this complexity requires HR leaders to understand the intricate dynamics of reboarding and the types of actions that can be deployed to mitigate complexity while designing and executing office returns that align with cultural values and fostering an inclusive workplace.
Relearning how to work together
As employees return to the office en masse, they may feel like they’ve walked into a new organization with new colleagues, given how long many have been working remotely. Major business changes, including staff reductions in response to a looming recession, also complicate reentry. Returning employees might quickly discover that their new colleagues – including those on the front-end of their careers who were hired over a video platform – may need help mastering water-cooler conversations (or, for folks who are not in the office, the lack of them), navigating informal organizational networks and solving problems via face-to-face discussions.
Video hiring and long-distance teleworking helped create workplace norms that complicate reboarding. How can the organization require a recent hire who lives in a distant city to return to the office three days a week? How can it navigate the perception of unfairness? If a reboarding mandate is limited to employees within a 45-minute commute to the office, is it fair for employees and leaders who live outside that range to enjoy 90 additional minutes of daily personal time by forgoing their commute? Are return-to-office policies enforced on a formal or ad hoc basis? Are remote executives exempt from these policies?
As HR Dive’s Carolyn Crist points out, a recent Executive Networks survey finds that less than one-third of knowledge workers believe their organization makes it worthwhile for them to commute, and nearly half of respondents report that their companies are not doing enough to make reboarding appealing. With people, talent and culture sitting atop the list of top concerns for the board and C-suite in 2023 and into 2032, organizations must rethink the way they attract and retain talent to ensure they become and remain an employer of choice.
Other reboarding challenges relate to impacts and equity. Employees whose roles require activities like telephone conversations, online research and data analysis (but infrequent in-person collaboration) saw their productivity soar after moving to quiet home offices where they could achieve more in less time without commutes eating into personal time. Conversely, people managers, sales professionals and employees in other high-touch roles may be itching to plunge back into the collaborative environments they need to thrive.
Similarly, many (though certainly not all) Gen X and baby boomer employees prefer the human interactions that in-person work fosters to the tech-driven communications of remote work. Many (but, again, not all) millennial and Gen Z workers feel the opposite. It is important for HR leaders to recognize that working-model preferences relate to several factors, including personality type such as introversion or extroversion, and do not neatly align with generational stereotypes and job types.
Real or perceived differences regarding how in-office and remote employees are evaluated, remunerated and promoted will arise as reboarding increases. Litigation risks could materialize if organizations are viewed as using proximity to managers as a promotion determinant.
Culture Drives Reboarding
Return-to-office policies so far have produced more questions than answers. Fortunately, fresh insights about reboarding practices arise every day. While reboarding policies and plans necessarily vary by organization, effective approaches address the following focal points:
- Culture drives reboarding: Organizational culture should shape reboarding policies, communications and processes. The use of tracking badges to enforce a three-days-a-week-in-office mandate might work well for a buttoned-up military contractor but spreads distrust inside a digital ad agency. Aligning reboarding with cultural values will help limit employee backlash to reboarding requirements.
- Transparent communications are crucial: The manner in which a return-to-office policy is communicated often has a larger impact on how the workforce responds than the policy itself. HR leaders should communicate these policies in a personal and intentional manner and should share important context on why the decisions were made, while crystallizing the strategic rationale for reboarding in compelling sound bites.
- Be vigilant for any sign of bias: Inequity related to where an employee works can take many forms, including hiring decisions, performance reviews, pay decisions, promotion decisions and communications. HR teams should monitor this risk and quickly mitigate it when present.
- Avoid broad-brush solutions and ambiguity: Different job titles, age groups and personality groups will respond to reboarding challenges differently. Crisply defined performance measures will help reduce proximity-bias risks in evaluations and promotion decisions.
- Consider new opportunities and innovations: Pandemic restrictions and remote work dulled traditional social skills but sharpened technology-driven communications abilities. There may be new opportunities for employees with different communication strengths to help round out each other’s skill sets (while driving culture building as the reboarding journey advances). Managers will have new opportunities to enhance their leadership skills by helping their people adjust to the new rules of engagement while emphasizing that how we work together is more important than where we work.
Reboarding also presents HR leaders with another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate their strategic value.