The keys to executing an employee-centric return to the office [Q&A]

Office entrance

As businesses begin to announce their intentions to bring employees back into the office, many employees have publicly pushed back. People don't want to go back into work and incur all of the stresses that come with it, including lengthy commutes, parking fees, and a loss of work-life balance.

Zach Dunn co-founder and VP of customer experience at Robin has helped hundreds of companies, including Twitter, Peloton, and Toyota, to execute comprehensive return to office (RTO) strategies that have run smoothly and paved the path towards an effective hybrid workplace model.

We spoke to Zach to discuss how the traditional office model has irrevocably changed and what businesses can do to help their employees thrive in a hybrid office.

BN: What is the ideal RTO strategy?

ZD: That answer is simple: there is no such thing as a perfect RTO strategy.

The only mistake businesses make at this time is moving to a permanent in-office or remote work environment. Many businesses began to roll out hybrid work models and have experienced some well-publicized initial employee pushback. It's essential to view these issues for what they are: a tacit acknowledgment that the traditional office experience doesn't support employees. 2020 flipped the traditional workplace model on its head when workers found they could complete the vast majority of their work tasks from home.

Rather than forcing workers to trudge to the office everyday, many forward-looking businesses see value in catering to the needs of their employees. The office supports work being done, it doesn't just house people that work for the same company from 9-5 pm. Many businesses realize employees want flexibility and input on how and where they work.

BN: Why is there so much hype around the hybrid work model?

ZD: A recent study from Ernst & Young showed that 90 percent of employees want some form of 'flexibility as to when and where they work' after the pandemic.

Remote work was touted by many workplace experts for years but was frowned upon by many corporate leaders. Last year proved that almost all of those fears weren't true. People stayed engaged, worked their butts off, and delivered historic returns for many businesses despite what -- by any conventional measurement -- was an insanely stressful year. The genie's out of the bottle, and most employees don't want to come back to the office full-time.

Before the pandemic, businesses lost billions in healthcare costs and sick days due to workplace stress. Daily commutes averaged roughly an hour round-trip every day. The hybrid work model is employers' acknowledgment that we can improve upon the traditional office model to create better work-life integration for people. For the past decade or so, 'hustle culture' permeated businesses and wrung every drop of productivity from employees. However, it came at the cost of employees' health and well-being. We have the technology to improve workers' engagement and productivity, so why not use them?

BN: What are the challenges in implementing a hybrid workplace?

ZD: Hybrid work doesn't give employees complete autonomy to do whatever they want whenever they want. Organizations have the power to define the employee experience (from onboarding through advancement and retention) and shouldn't give up that position. Communication is essential.

Hybrid work forces businesses to loosen their control over the workplace. Empowering people to proactively choose where and how they work delivers immediate engagement and retention benefits. The employee-employer dynamic is shifting and businesses need to adapt to develop a work culture that transcends location.

BN: Do you believe the office is dead?

ZD: Unequivocally, no. A May Harvard Business Review article noted that only one percent of organizations plan to remain 'remote only' post-pandemic. Offices provide a central location for colleagues to collaborate, socialize, and connect with their employers. Hybrid work models may also better accommodate working mothers and other employees caring for young children, a group whose work lives have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and deserve extra attention and support moving forward.

Rather than simply acting as a central work location, businesses transform their workspaces into purpose-built interactive 'clubhouses' where employees collaborate with colleagues on essential projects and utilize company resources. Workplace leaders take inventory of their physical and digital workplace tools and ensure equitable access among their workforce. Common questions we ask our clients include:

  • Are there enough focus work areas for employees?
  • Are conference rooms accessible to all departments and employees?
  • Is your digital workplace accessible to all your employees, regardless of their location or tech aptitude?

These questions help organizations design effective workspaces that align with employees' expectations and attract and retain top talent.

BN: What is the best way businesses can ensure a successful RTO strategy?

ZD: The good news is that employees appear eager to return to the office in some capacity. Our research shows a 40 percent spike in US employees working from the office in May, and we expect those numbers to continue. There are two ways that businesses can roll out an effective RTO strategy: establish a workplace department and create a feedback loop for employees.

Leaders from HR, IT, and facilities should guide the office employee experience. This cross-disciplinary panel will implement workplace policies and communicate the expectations and goals of the business. The overall goal is to eliminate friction from the office and remote experiences to enable people to perform at their top level.

Insights into the employee experience must be delivered to the workplace leader: both directly and through workplace analytics. While it's always good to allow people to share their frustrations with current work policies, businesses can't rely on people to pluck up enough courage to fire off a constructive email to solve an organizational problem. Seamless employee experiences require IT teams, to create a deeply integrated back-end tech stack that includes building access, HR systems, and reservation systems for meeting spaces, desks, and other office equipment. That integration stack allows IT and facilities teams to learn and adapt their office with a holistic view of which departments are impacting the offices.

Image credit: AllaSerebrina/

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