Since COVID-19 restrictions have eased, a growing number of employers want their employees back in the office to drive team bonding and productivity. However, many employees have enjoyed flexible work schedules and aren’t keen on giving that up.
Returning to the workplace isn’t as easy as sending your employees an email with your office’s reopening date and expecting everything to run smoothly. You need a structured return to office (RTO) policy that makes the transition easy and entices your employees to come back willingly.
This blog goes over what an RTO policy is and highlights five best practices to create a policy for your company that will serve both your employees’ needs and your business goals.
What is an RTO policy?
An RTO policy is an organized strategy for bringing employees back to their company’s physical location. Some organizations may already have an RTO policy for employees on medical or parental leave. However, RTO policies have become more widespread after the COVID-19 pandemic compelled many companies to adopt remote work policies.
Returning to the office won’t be the same for every business. Your RTO policy should factor in any local mandates, your industry, and employee needs. It should outline strategies to create a safe work environment for employees so they can stay healthy.
The three most popular methods of returning to work are the following:
- Optional RTO: With optional RTO, you can give your employees a choice on whether or not they want to return to the office. If your business needs allow it, employees that want to work in the office can do so, while those that don’t want to can stay remote.
- Hybrid RTO: The hybrid work policy is the most popular RTO model. With this policy, employees work in-office a few days per week and work from home the rest of the week. Employers typically mandate which days employees should be in the office. However, hybrid remains popular because it offers flexibility and onsite collaboration opportunities.
- Full-time RTO: This policy has the least amount of flexibility for employees. But depending on your industry, it may be unavoidable. For example, if you’re in the manufacturing or healthcare industry, full-time RTO could be the only option to meet your business needs.
Because navigating RTO is so tricky, the majority of organizations1 are using a hybrid work model. But 90% of companies2 want to return to the office in some way in 2023—if they haven’t done so already.
As difficult as it was transitioning to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, asking employees to return to the office can be just as stressful and frustrating. That’s why creating a strong RTO policy can help you pave the way to success.
Five best practices to launch a successful RTO policy
1. Send out an employee survey
You may have several employees who are concerned about safely returning to work. That’s why you should survey your employees to find out how they feel about returning to the office before you start designing your RTO policy.
Asking for input early in the process can build employees’ confidence and show them you care. According to a Salesforce report3, employees are five times more likely to be productive and engaged at your organization when they feel like their voice is heard—which leads to greater retention.
Surveying your employees about RTO is an excellent way to:
- Understand how employees feel about working remotely, onsite, or hybrid.
- Identify any work environment gaps between employees and senior leaders, as well as departments and teams.
- Discover any concerns employees may have about returning to the office.
- Determine what office plans regarding health and safety they want to see implemented onsite.
- Find out what your employees need from you to be successful in an onsite, hybrid, or remote work environment. This can include additional employee perks or benefits, changes to your culture, flexible work options, updates to their office space or equipment, and more.
Your employees are in the best position to tell you what they need to make the transition easiest for them, so take the time to gather their feedback and use their ideas to help you outline your policy. Once you draft your policy, you can send a follow-up survey to your employees to determine how comfortable they are with the steps and address any concerns.
2. Have an open line of communication
Employees want to know what to expect when returning to work. Having open and honest communication about why they’re returning, the benefits of being in the office, and the details of your RTO policy will keep everyone on the same page when transitioning.
Communicate clearly through multiple channels, like emails, instant messages, and company meetings to ensure employees are up-to-date on important information. Early communication about the return date is crucial. It allows employees to start planning childcare, transportation, and personal schedules ahead of time, which can help reduce stress.
Having conversations about safety measures is another crucial task. You should share any policies around vaccinations, masks, and sick leave to help instill confidence in those returning to work. If you decide to use a hybrid work model or another agile work environment, you should also communicate this to your employees.
Lastly, give employees a contact list if they have any questions about returning to the office or the RTO policy. They can always reach out to their direct manager, but you could also include members of your HR or leadership teams for extra support.
3. Offer flexible work schedules
Having a strict RTO policy could put you at risk for employee dissatisfaction and turnover. The Great Resignation saw many workers leave their jobs for companies offering flexible work schedules with better work-life balance. While some workers may be eager to return to the office full-time, giving employees more flexibility can improve retention and morale.
Allowing for flexibility doesn’t mean you can’t put guidelines in place. For example, if you’re using the hybrid method, you might allow employees to work only one day of their choosing in the office instead of two or three. Or you can let employees leave work for time-sensitive personal reasons, like picking up a child from school.
Some other ideas around work flexibility include:
- Having no meeting days scheduled on a team or company-wide basis.
- Offering a 9/80 work schedule. With a 9/80 schedule, employees work 80 hours over nine days instead of the usual 80 hours over ten days.
- Encouraging employees to block out a set of hours during the day for uninterrupted work to promote greater focus and productivity.
- Giving employees daily flexibility to decide if they want to work in the office or remotely that day, depending on their tasks and responsibilities.
Employees have gotten used to readjusting their schedules and juggling their work and personal lives over the past few years. They’re more likely to avoid burnout if you’re as flexible and understanding as possible when requiring them to return to the office.
4. Use technology to facilitate the process
Returning to the office is no small feat. It’s a lengthy process requiring constant organizing and monitoring. To succeed, you’ll need the right workplace technology to automate tasks, analyze data, and facilitate scheduling for a dynamic and modern transition back to work.
Below are workplace software programs to help you manage the RTO process:
- Desk booking software: Employees don’t have to sit in the same spot whenever they are in the office. This software allows them to reserve a desk to use on an hourly or daily basis, whether that be next to their team or in a quiet location for heads-down work.
- Room booking software: Teams or large groups can reserve meeting rooms in advance or on the spot from their mobile device when they’re in the office.
- Hybrid work scheduling: Scheduling tool allows employees under a hybrid work policy to view who’s in the office on what days, reserve their days to come into the office, and invite others to join on specific days for onsite collaboration.
- Wayfinding applications: These applications help employees quickly locate people, offices, or conference rooms from their laptops or mobile devices.
- Workplace analytics programs: These allow you to track various aspects of the employee’s office experience. They provide detailed insights into office attendance, how employees use their office space, and other work areas.
5. Implement your policy slowly and be realistic
Moving from remote work to the office is bound to frustrate some people. Not all your staff will like the change, and you may experience backlash from employees. While you can’t please everyone, you can implement your RTO policy slowly to give your workers time to adjust.
For example, suggest one day back in the office per week for a certain period of time and then add more days later if necessary. A gradual return policy will help your employees get acclimated easier and reduce the risk of in-office burnout.
Keep your employees’ personal schedules and obligations in mind. It may take a while for someone to get settled if they’re used to working from home and caring for a child or an elderly parent at the same time. The more understanding and communicative you can be about their unique situation, the more they’ll feel valued and appreciated.
Your original plan to return to the office will likely shift over time as you go along. But if implemented with a focus on flexibility and employee satisfaction, you can minimize stress and keep your employees happy.
How to improve your benefits package for in-office and remote employees
Once your employees are back in the office, it’s a good time to review your benefits package. A comprehensive benefits package with a variety of perks is critical to recruiting and retaining top talent. Better yet, showing your employees that you value them by offering them perks to use at home and in the workplace goes a long way toward improving morale and boosting company culture.
Let’s go over four benefits you can offer to better support your in-office, hybrid, and remote workers.
Health reimbursement arrangements
Two popular types of HRAs are the qualified small employer HRA (QSEHRA) and the individual coverage HRA (ICHRA). QSEHRAs are designed for organizations with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) while ICHRAs are available for employers of any size.
Both options support employees that work from home, onsite, or are fully remote—even for employers with workers in multiple states. HRAs are a flexible health benefit option that allows employees to choose the individual health insurance plan that works best for them and their location, empowering them to take control of their health.
Stipends are a fixed amount of money offered to employees to help pay for work, wellness, living expenses, and more. There’s no limit to the number of stipends you can offer or the amount of money to go along with them. Stipends are available to all employees, whether they’re remote, hybrid, or fully in-office. Unlike other types of benefits, you can also easily offer stipends to 1099 contractors, or international workers.
For example, you can offer a variety of benefits to your in-office and hybrid employees that are working parents, like commuter benefits, nanny stipends, daycare stipends, or a pet care stipend to support them and their loved ones while they’re at work.
Remote companies can offer their employees remote work stipends to purchase necessities for their home office and wellness stipends for items like gym memberships, fitness trackers, and exercise equipment.
Paid time off (PTO) is always a great benefit to include in your compensation package. Employees returning to the office will especially value a substantial PTO policy that gives them the freedom to take time off when they need to recharge.
If your business operations allow it, unlimited PTO lets employees take off as much time as they want to spend with friends and family, as long as the time off is approved and they still complete their tasks promptly.
Additionally, having an appropriate amount of sick leave has become a top priority for employees. Offering increased paid sick leave for employees who may become ill with COVID-19 or have family members with it shows you care about their health and wellbeing.
Employee assistance program (EAP)
EAP is a work-based program where trained professionals offer free assessments, counseling, referrals, and resources for employees with personal struggles, work-related problems, and mental health issues. These services can be particularly helpful for individuals stressed about transitioning back to the office after the pandemic.
Support can be delivered face-to-face for in-office employees. However, most counseling uses phone, video chat, online messaging, or email. Therefore, EAP is a tool that can support all your employees, no matter their location.
EAP services are sometimes available through your group health plan’s provider. If you don’t have a group plan at your organization, some stand-alone vendors provide EAP services that you can add to your benefits package.
For many employers, working remotely was only a temporary solution to social distancing guidelines due to the pandemic. Now that organizations are returning to the workplace, having an RTO policy to help you with the transition is key. The more you consider your employees’ needs when designing your policy, the more successful you’ll be at retaining them.
While you work on your RTO policy, check to see if your benefits package has room for improvement. Adding fringe benefits like an HRA or stipend shows your employees you care both in and out of the office. Contact us if you want to add personalized employee benefits to your compensation package, and we’ll help you get started.