In the years since COVID-19 restrictions changed the way people work, many employers have continued to demand their employees to come back to the office to drive team bonding and boost productivity. However, Gallup reported1 that more than 90% of employees who worked remotely in 2022 enjoyed their flexible work schedules and weren’t looking forward to giving them up.
If you’re experiencing pushback from employees because of your return-to-office mandate, having your team return to the workplace won’t be as easy as sending them an email with your office’s reopening date. You need a structured return to office (RTO) policy that makes the transition easy and entices your employees to return.
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 office location. Some organizations may already have an RTO policy for employees on medical or parental leave. But, RTO policies have become more popular 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 current 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 they want to return to the office. If your business needs allow it, employees who wish to work in the office can do so, while those who don’t want to can stay remote.
- Hybrid RTO: The hybrid work policy is the most popular RTO model because it offers flexibility and onsite collaboration opportunities. With this policy, employees work in the 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.
- 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.
A Resume Builder survey2 of 1,000 corporate business owners found that 90% will return to the office by the end of 2024. Because navigating RTO is so tricky, many organizations3 decide to opt for a hybrid schedule.
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 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 report4, employees are five times more likely to be productive and engaged at your organization when they feel like you respect their opinions—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 health and safety plans they want you to put in place 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, 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 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 office policies around vaccinations, masks, and sick leave to help instill confidence in those returning to work. If you decide to use a hybrid schedule or another agile work model, you should also communicate this to your employees.
Lastly, give employees a contact list if they have 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
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 80 hours over ten days, giving them an extra day off.
- 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 ease 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 when they’re 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 entire 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 tools allow 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 apps help employees quickly locate people, offices, or conference rooms from their laptops or mobile devices.
- Workplace analytics programs: These allow you to track various employee metrics of your staff’s office experience. They provide detailed insights into office attendance, badge swipes, and how employees use their workspace and other areas.
5. Implement your policy slowly and be realistic
Moving from a remote role to the office is bound to frustrate some people. Some of your staff will like the change, but you may also experience backlash from employees. While you can’t please everyone, slowly implementing your RTO policy will give your staff 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 employees acclimate more efficiently 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 simultaneously. 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 you focus on flexibility and employee satisfaction, you can reduce 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 an excellent time to review your benefits package. A comprehensive benefits package with various perks is critical to recruiting and retaining top talent. Better yet, showing your employees that you value them by offering perks to use at home and work goes a long way toward improving morale, creating high levels of job satisfaction, and boosting company culture.
Let’s go over four benefits you can offer better to support your in-office, hybrid, and remote workers.
Health reimbursement arrangements
A health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) is an IRS-approved and employer-funded health benefit that allows you to reimburse your employees tax-free for their qualifying medical expenses and sometimes individual health insurance premiums.
Two popular types of HRAs are the qualified small employer HRA (QSEHRA) and the individual coverage HRA (ICHRA). QSEHRAs are for organizations with fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs), while ICHRAs are available for employers of any size.
Both options support employees who work onsite or have fully remote roles. They even provide health benefits 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 current 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 provide or the amount of money that can accompany them.
Stipends are available to all employees, whether they’re remote, hybrid, or fully in-office. Unlike other benefits, you can also offer taxable stipends to 1099 contractors or international workers.
For example, you can offer various benefits to your in-office and hybrid employees who are working parents, like public transportation, childcare, or pet care stipends 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 significantly value a robust PTO policy that allows them 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 their manager approves it 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 beneficial for individuals stressed about returning to an office plan after the pandemic.
In-office EAP support can be available for in-office employees. However, most counseling uses phone, video chat, online messaging, or email. So, 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, remote working was a temporary solution to social distancing guidelines. Now that in-office work is again being looked at as the standard, having an RTO policy to help transition is vital to reduce pushback from employees. 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.
This article was originally published on January 18, 2023. It was last updated on November 13, 2023.