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4 keys to getting workers to return to the office after COVID

April 5, 2022, 3:00 PM UTC
Two colleagues great each other in the office with an elbow tap.
"If you build a good company and positive culture, talent will come—indeed, they will even come into the office," the authors write.
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Three days a week. Four days a week. Don’t come in at all. Whatever. I just don’t know. That just about covers what business leaders are thinking about the return to work of their office-based employees. It’s a muddle. 

As a result, many leaders have been tempted to keep it simple. In mid-2021, McKinsey found that a majority of employers envisioned people coming into the office four or five days a week. Business is ever more collaborative, they reason, and while teleconferencing has proved useful, it is not nearly as good as having everyone in the same room. In addition, it is difficult—maybe impossible—to build a cohesive corporate culture remotely. Finally, there is the virtue of familiarity; this is the way they are used to managing.

Those are all good points, but there’s a problem with this scenario: it won’t work. The Great Attrition is real. If businesses cannot keep their talent happy, many of them will simply leave, and one of the most important factors in coming and going is flexibility. According to survey by McKinsey in January, among those who had left a job without having another one, those who came back to the workforce rated flexibility as the single most important reason. In the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans quitting their jobs remains near record levels. Moreover, according to that same January McKinsey survey, there is no evidence of a “boomerang effect”—that is, people returning to their previous jobs; only 20% do. More than four in 10 went to a different industry. 

There is no single answer to what the norms should be for the next normal. Getting it right depends on the company, industry, geography, and workforce. But there are some principles that will apply widely.

One is that COVID-19 is part of the future, and so are the many workplace changes that have taken root, such as remote and hybrid working. Another is that the power dynamic, particularly for higher-skilled jobs, has shifted in favor of employees. If they don’t like the conditions of employment, they will bristle, and given that the stigma of leaving a job no longer exists, many will just quit. A third is that letting people do exactly what they want, when they want, rarely works. And finally, employers have the right, and responsibility, to set expectations. 

With those principles in mind, here is how businesses can use the return to work to create a new and better way of operating that works for both companies and people.

Accept that flexibility is here to stay

While there may be executives who miss seeing a sea of cubicles, they are going to have to get over it: that is not what work is about anymore, if it ever was. 

In a 2021 survey, almost 30% of respondents said they would consider quitting if made to return to fulltime on-site work. About half of employees who left their jobs said they had done so because they did not have good work-life balance. Parents, particularly non-white ones, feel this most acutely, and because parents make up a big share of crucial middle- and upper-management roles, losing them can cripple a company’s future. Moreover, women play an outsized role in providing the informal social bonding that keeps organizations together. The implication is that without flexibility, not only will it be difficult to recruit and retain talent, but diversity and inclusion efforts are doomed. 

Make the office a place people want to come to

By attracting people to come back regularly, a natural momentum can build, without imposing an arbitrary day count. 

This is not about providing organic snacks and foosball tables; it’s about creating employee experiences that are purposeful and authentic. People with positive employee experiences have 16 times the engagement level of those with negative ones, and they are eight times more likely to want to stay. Creating a sense of belonging and feeling valued holds the key to strengthening ties with employees, so they want to grow within the company—not outside it.

The design of office space is one factor. Traditional offices are full of heads-down workspaces, such as desks and cubicles. Consider new designs and technologies, such as sensors and moveable walls, that promote flexibility and collaboration. There is also a case for organizational redesign. McKinsey research has found that the most resilient companies—those that actually improved their performance in the first year of the pandemic—relied more on small, cross-functional teams with real authority to make decisions. They delegated more, did more leadership training, focused more on outcomes. Not coincidentally, they also saw higher employee satisfaction. Cross-silo teams work best with an in-person dimension. 

Let the level of collaboration drive the level of coordination

The military does not do basic training by remote, and there’s a reason for that: Building a healthy culture requires real face time. The social experience of work matters, particularly when people are getting started. The first weeks are the best chance to foster a sense of connection while introducing an organization’s values, cultureand processes; the same can be true for collaborative projects. 

Flexibility does not have to mean a free-for-all, and avoiding mandates does not mean no rules. Depending on the context, it may be perfectly reasonable to require regular in-person check-ins for training and community building—something that has sufferedover the course of the pandemic. Consider a recurring schedule, like “Team Wednesdays” for social lunch and group problem solving; or two days a month for unit-based planning and project work. The point is to come together for purposeful activity.

Keep organizational health in mind

Organizational health is a company’s ability to align its culture and practices to achieve its strategic goals; it is essential to long-term performance. The remote versus in-person debate is not a universal one, and indeed, to some extent this is a preoccupation of more elite occupations. There are many jobs—restaurant workers, home health staff, plumbers—in which working offsite is not an option. If executives are teleconferencing from the beach while lower-ranking staff are forced to toil at headquarters, that can exacerbate inequity and corrode the company culture. 

That matters, because companies with strong cultures are simply better companies, for both employees and investors, delivering returns to shareholders that are 60% higher than median companies and 200% higher than those in the bottom quartile. The fact is, the pandemic has changed the wants and needs of employees, so the culture needs to adapt, too.

* * *

Negotiating the return to the office will be a delicate matter, but the most important thing to remember is to think of it as building momentum to do so, not micro-managing people’s working hours. 

 No matter what, talent does not migrate to bad companies. If you build a good company and positive culture, they will come—indeed, they will even come into the office.

Aaron de Smet is a is a senior partner in McKinsey’s New Jersey office. Bill Schaninger is a senior partner in the Philadelphia office.

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