Here’s the right way to return to the office, according to Future Forum’s research

These companies looked into the impact of policies around employees' return to the office. Here's what they learned.

Telling people to come in to do heads-down work rings false to employees who’ve proven they can be productive at home. But 80% of employees want to use the office for camaraderie and socialization. Getty Images

As the pandemic recedes, many executives are pressing forward with prescriptive “return to office” plans, often in the face of employee resistance.

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As the pandemic recedes, many executives are pressing forward with prescriptive “return to office” plans, often in the face of employee resistance.

Employees have spent two years proving they can be productive working from home, often under extraordinarily trying circumstances, and they’re not willing to give up this flexibility. At the same time, many have missed connecting in-person with their colleagues and would appreciate the option to work from the office–but on their own terms.

The executives we’ve spoken to have felt caught in the middle. What’s the right approach to foster connections among employees while empowering them to work how it’s best for them?

Through our work with Future Forum, a research group led by Slack, MillerKnoll, and others, we’ve narrowed in on three key lessons.

Lead with principles, not top-down mandates

Future Forum research shows that 79% of people want flexibility in where they work, with most (65%) preferring hybrid over being fully remote. But arbitrarily mandating which days employees should come into the office is a risky strategy. It’s human nature to reactively rebel against what we perceive as threats to our autonomy. And the needs and rhythms of teams in sales, engineering, and finance are all different.

Start with principles. Your “why” should always be front and center. Whether you’re embracing flexibility to be more inclusive or encouraging in-person time to support your company’s focus on mentoring, it’s essential to articulate the connection between your organizational values and your policies.

For example, after Royal Bank of Canada adopted “proximity still matters” as one of their work principles, they articulated an expectation that all employees should live within commuting distance of one of their offices. They didn’t stipulate which days employees should come into the office but instead focused on the basic parameters aligned with their goals.

Meanwhile, at Slack, we’ve said that “digital-first doesn’t mean never in person” and encouraged teams to find a rhythm that works for them through team-level agreements

Whatever principle you use, it’s important that executives also lead by example. If flexibility is a value, then they can’t be showing up five days a week in a top-floor executive suite.

Get clear on the purpose of being together

Telling people to come in to do heads-down work rings false to employees who’ve proven they can be productive at home. Most employees (80%) want to use the office primarily for camaraderie and socialization. This type of community-building happens through both informal connections and more purposeful, planned interactions.

Leaders should start thinking about how they can structure gatherings “on purpose” to always serve both their business and social objectives.

We also need to make it easy for managers who are often overwhelmed. Beyond a budget, give managers a toolkit for hosting effective gatherings: agenda templates, pre-approved vendors, best practices like having a hybrid meeting moderator, and relationship-building activities that have worked for others.

Improve the environment

The average floor space per employee shrank nearly 50% from the late 1970s to 2020. Corporate workspaces have often consisted of highly generic rows of desks and conference rooms that give little choice or variety to workers.

Offices need to deliver more value to employees in order to be effective investments. Physical space can be highly impactful if designed to be more desirable, inclusive, and flexible.

It’s time to reverse the historical trend and “de-densify” offices. The three primary needs of employees are community socialization, immersive team time, and heads-down concentration space for those that need it. Those needs are much more “on-demand” and require a shift from open seating areas to modular, shared spaces for groups.

This reset is an opportunity to engage your employees to understand their needs. Let them tell you how to enhance existing spaces, rather than unilaterally overhauling the office. Partnering with employees on this process communicates that the space exists to serve them and that their engagement will shape its future.

The “return to office” shift is significant, but it doesn’t need to be a contentious event. Office spaces and policies that are flexible, intentional, and focused on social connection are most likely to resonate with employees.

Aim towards progress, not perfection, and whatever your goals are, enlist employees in the experiment and listen to their feedback. With the right approach, the office can help us build stronger and more inclusive teams—and better businesses.

Brian Elliott is the executive leader of Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in the new digital-first world, and co-author of How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to do the Best Work of their Lives.

Ryan Anderson is VP of global research and insights at MillerKnoll, a collective of dynamic brands that comes together to design the world we live in. He has more than 25 years of experience exploring the future of work and the workplace.

Slack and MillerKnoll are both founding partners of the Future Forum consortium. Royal Bank of Canada executives participate in Future Forum’s Executive Working Groups; they do not pay or get paid to participate.

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