As 2021 draws to a close there is no shortage of articles describing all the reasons employees need to return to office or workplace. So, I thought I would take a different spin on the question on everyone’s minds:

How do we get employees to want to come back to the office? 

As leaders in human resources, or other people aspects of the business, it’s our job to figure out exactly which reasons cause employees hesitation in returning to the office. We want to find new, exciting ways to inspire that return to work. We also want to continue encouraging flexible work options that provide incentives for our employees.

We will cover some of the factors that push people to want to return to work as well as some of the barriers. One impactful factor is the change in company culture. As employees began working out of their home, the company cultures changed. In the last 18 to 24 months, employees that were once well-connected felt a new kind of pressure and lack of connection. Our gut reaction is to try to recapture and go back to the way things were in early 2020. But remember, the workplace was not perfect back then either. Now is the time to make some mindful, conscious changes to your organization’s approach to work. The result could be the key to keeping all your employees engaged and happy whether they are in person or remote.

Anecdotal Evidence

In researching for this article, I asked friends, family, and other business professionals what their employers could do to make them want to come back to work in person. The respondents included a wide array of workers. There were highly educated, professional executives who work in a corporate environment, people who work in non-profit organizations, people who work in manufacturers making many of the products that we need, and people who transport those products to our store shelves. 

There were a few interesting commonalities to the responses. First, every person who responded took time to write paragraphs, not just short answers. Because of that, I knew I hit a nerve with the question. The other commonality was that more than 50% of those who took time to respond said there was nothing their employers could do to entice them to want to come back to work in person. They are all completely satisfied working from home or other locations they deem safe.

Although all said they were satisfied working from home, when pressed, several people shared the things they miss about the office. Mervyn Dinnen, Talent Acquisition Analyst from the UK says, “I’ve worked from home for a long time. But what I always miss most about an office is connection, conversation, banter, and interaction. Social media and (video calls) help but can’t replace the real things.” Steve Boese, President of H3 HR Advisors & Chairman of The HR Technology Conference says, “Once employees started working from home, they lost the connections made spontaneously. Now, everything has to be scheduled and typically with people they already know. In the workplace, they have the opportunity to network and collaborate with new people.”

In the working from home deal you only ever talk to people when things are scheduled and you already know the people.

If you think back to the beginning of the pandemic when people were quarantined and on lockdown, we all struggled collectively at working from home. It was hard if you had children who needed supervision, pets to tend to, or there were people coming to your door. There were also other distractions interrupting your workday. It was difficult to work in a new environment, especially one that you typically only use for relaxation and to get away from work stressors. But as the months went by, employees found that they were able to come up with new routines and new ways of working that seemed comfortable and ultimately productive. In some cases, even more productive than when they were in the office. 

When I think back through all the responses I received, the one common thread that ran through the paragraphs of comments was food and community. Food and community. Let that sink in for a moment. When we think of reasons to be anywhere and feel wanted, valued, and important, food and community are two of the driving factors that can get us there. We will come back to those and describe how you can focus on food and community as you rethink bringing employees back to the workplace.

Return to Office Barriers

There are many reasons why people want to remain home. I heard from friends, relatives, and business professionals that they really like the flexibility. The ability to not have long commutes, the stress of traffic, or the time away from family is a weighty barrier. And as I mentioned before, employees are doing this successfully. So, I flipped my thinking and considered some of the barriers to working from home and what people are getting tired of doing. 

Video Meeting Fatigue

The primary barrier I hear is video meeting fatigue. This is impactful because we perceive a lack of connection when using video as the sole means of communication. Over the months, people were asked, and sometimes even forced, to be on meeting after meeting using all the latest video technology. Collectively, we’re not used to being seen all that often. In most companies, people do not sit in meetings all day. There is time built in to get work done. But now that many employees are working remotely, they are expected to be in meetings much of the day. This is an effort to maintain a sense of connection. There is still no evidence that creates or strengthens employee connection.

Visibility

When you think about it, even in your workplace you don’t have someone staring directly at you all day. But for many of us working from home, or remote, during a pandemic meant having our faces visible to our colleagues most of the day. This constant visibility is stressful and can produce anxiety for employees who were normally well adjusted before the pandemic. 

Unstructured Conversations

Another barrier to working from home is we miss out on having unstructured conversations that used to occur in the hallways or kitchens at work. When you bump into a colleague and exchange pleasantries, ask about their family, or you get an update on a project you’ve been working on, it leads to greater connection and stronger relationships. All these unstructured conversations also lead to a better sense of community and we’re missing that right now.

Lack of Purpose

As we’re all focused on using the technologies for new ways to connect, sometimes we lose sight of the purpose of meetings and unstructured conversations. The purpose is coming together to share creative ideas and brainstorm but this occurs differently than in the past. These challenges are good reasons to bring people back together in person. Without that, our company cultures may continue to deteriorate. It all comes down to how that has changed over the past 18 to 24 months.

Evolving or Deteriorating Company Culture

I’ve heard many workers talk about how company culture has fallen apart and that’s a bad thing. For many organizations, I think it’s reality. But I challenge us to think differently about how we might have needed something to disrupt the way company cultures were being allowed to grow and fester. Now is our opportunity to rebuild company cultures stronger and in a way that meets more of the needs of a diverse, inclusive environment of workers. Yes, company culture may have fallen apart in many regards because we’ve lost some of those connective tissues that we had before. But we’ve also been given a great gift of rebuilding and finding new reasons to be together with our colleagues.

As you consider rebuilding and strengthening your company’s culture, there are several factors to keep in mind. Employees who want to return to work need to feel safe and secure. They also want to return to jobs where there are opportunities. So, as you bring people back to your workplace, be thinking about giving emotional support whether that’s through therapy, meditation, group gatherings, or other means. Ensure employee safety by meeting all COVID 19 guidelines. 

Another factor that came up in my communications and conversations with employees of all types is the fact that adding a commute or time away from family to get to the place of employment looms large. We feel like it’s been a gift to get time back with our families, time off the road, and stress away from being in traffic as we commute to and from our jobs. Start thinking about creative ways that we can bring people back to the office in a way that gives them flexibility around the commute and around the time lost with their loved ones. Perhaps that means offering a DoorDash DashPass for Work membership so when they get home from work they can focus on recharging and time with their family instead of meal prep or doing the dishes. 

Picture of ROI of DoorDash for Work One-Pager

Keep in mind that as leaders and organizations we need to lead with empathy.

This is the one time in life where we’ve all gone through a very similar experience regardless of if you are the most junior employee in the organization or you’re the CEO. We’ve all gone through similar struggles. So as business leaders when you look at ways to bring employees back into the workplace, think first with empathy. Think about some of the concerns you have and make sure you’re including changes in behavior as you move forward with your employees.

Rebuilding Your Culture

As you rebuild culture, I think there are two factors it really boils down to once you get people back to the workplace. The first is visibility. Visibility is the number one factor to me because we’ve lacked that in-person visibility over the past two years. Find ways to bring people together where they can see each other, where they can talk, laugh, and have those unstructured conversations. The second is to build in intentional mental health breaks. Do not expect everyone to be visible 100% of the day so normalize rest, moments of being alone, etc. 

There’s always been a debate on what will incentivize employees to do anything in the workplace. There are arguments of whether or not it’s a carrot or a stick that truly motivates and makes them want to do things. We’re not here to debate that today. But what I am here to share are some ideas as we circle back to those thoughts of community and food and how those can bring your employees back to the workplace and back to a better employee organizational culture:

Food and Community: The Way to Bring Employees Back

Since many workers mentioned the importance of eating and togetherness as what they missed about the workplace, it only makes sense to target those two areas when planning the return to office. Since food is one of our most basic human needs, investing in food programs for employees is a way to tap into that need. Food is comforting when we’re anxious or scared. Sharing food is a way to build connection, memories and camaraderie. Here are some ways to add food and community directly to your office’s return to work plans:

  • DashPass for Work is a great idea for companies who want to give a gift that keeps on giving. For less than a $100 gift card, you can give your employees a year-long membership to free delivery on all their grocery orders, restaurant orders, convenience store deliveries, liquor store deliveries, and more. It’s easier to set up and shows employee appreciation year-round. It makes their life so much easier. Synopsys recently shared some results of giving 5,000 of their employees a DashPass for Work membership. Ordering an average of 1.8 times per week, this Fortune 500 company gained over 32,000 hours of productivity per month and saved an average of $5.56 per employee per order. You can see that using DashPass for Work as an employee gift not only consolidates ordering, it has many other valuable effects in the workplace.
  • DoorDash Gift Cards are another great option when buying employee gifts in bulk. It’s not like any other gift card; it gives each employee that personal experience we’ve been planning for. It allows employees to buy food from any of their favorite places which can trigger those positive memories food brings. During the holiday season, it can also treat employees to their favorite holiday treats. They can be used at 450k+ restaurants across the country and can easily be sent via email with a personalized note to your remote workers, avoiding the hassle of having to figure out shipping and gifts arriving on time. Or if you want to order under lunch for your employees to enjoy together, check out Group Orders.
  • DoorDash Expensed Meals is the way to go when you’re looking for ease, scalability and flexibility. It’s easy because the program lets you set a budget for your employees each month, then forget it. Employees spend against the meal budget and receipt submission is automated, so it’s easy for them too. It’s scalable because you can gift as many employees as you’d like at once and track budgeting in the DoorDash Work Portal dashboard. And it’s flexible because it supports employees being able to spend their budget in 450k+ restaurants. Meals are automatically expensed to the company account so that employees can focus on what they are eating and not the mechanics of the program. It takes holiday stress out of the lives of everyone when you gift with Expensed Meals.

In terms of community building, food sharing is a way to build connections between people. In a recent Cornell study by Kevin Kniffin, “From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.” This social glue is about more than physically bringing employees together. It’s about the results that come from being together in a shared, emotional activity. It creates a type of intimate bond that is appropriate for the workplace. This bond is beneficial in productivity and morale. 

Finally, we all know the return to work is going to look very different for every organization, for every type of employer, and for every type of employee. We will have workers who remain remote, or in hybrid situations, for many many months and maybe years to come, so be sure to include workers who remain in these situations. Whatever method you use to bring forth an inclusive culture in the workplace, make sure that you’re taking those same important steps to keep your hybrid or remote workers included. Let them know the opportunities for them are still there, that their opinions and their insights are still valuable, and overall that they're still wanted in the company. If you continue to do those things you will find that whether your workplace is 100% in person, 100% remote, or somewhere in between, you’ll have a successful 2022. 

For more support as you plan for the new year and your employees return to work, read The Future of the Office.

return-to-work-ebook

Trish McFarlane
Trish McFarlane
CEO and Principal Analyst, H3 HR Advisors

Trish McFarlane is the CEO and Principal Analyst for H3 HR Advisors.  As a former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience in Big 4 public accounting, PR, healthcare, manufacturing, and IT, Trish brings that knowledge to her clients as an analyst and advisor.  She has been the author of the Trish McFarlane blog (formerly known as the HRRingleader blog) since 2009.  In addition, she began the HRevolution un-conference in 2009 and was a founding member of the Women of HR blog.