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Published on: HR Coaching & Mentoring

The Return of the Commute: HR Guide to Reframing the Return to Office

Fire up the coffee machine, stock up on printer ink, and dust off the water cooler – a return to the office is on the horizon. With the country starting to free itself from the grip of COVID, many businesses are calling their working from home employees back into the workplace. 

While a return to “normal” life may be a relief for some, it’s important for leaders to remember that the changes of the last two years cannot be erased. Employees have had a taste of a different kind of work experience, and studies show that many are reluctant to return to a traditional office environment.

This presents a problem for managers and HR leaders, who have some tough decisions ahead. What kind of setup will work best for your organisation? What does your employee return to work solution look like? How does HR support employees returning to the workplace who are feeling anxious?

This article will address these questions and provide tips and guidance on reframing the return to office for your organisation.

Should Your Employees Return to Office Now?

Is it really the right time for a return to the office? Your employees aren’t the only consideration here: even if they are all eager to come back, employers must ensure the workspace is a safe, effective space to be. 

As HR we may find ourselves in a difficult position, facing pressure from CEOs for a return to normality while trying to balance the realities of a post-pandemic workplace and anxious workers.

On top of that, we’re not entirely out of the woods when it comes to COVID. There is still uncertainty ahead, so it’s essential to take it slow and ensure any decisions made are the right ones – for the business and its employees, while conveying the right welcome back to the office message.

Initiating a Safe Return

The first step is to ensure that the return to office after COVID will be as safe as possible for your staff to avoid return to office problems. There should be a clear plan of action regarding physical and mental wellness in place before you even consider asking employees to stop working from home.

Surveys can be helpful to determine how workers feel about returning to the workplace, but remember, they are only one data point in your decision-making matrix. 

The size of your organisation directly affects your return to work strategy too. Smaller businesses may be able to make staffing decisions on an individual basis, but larger organisations tend to need more formal policies to function effectively.

Tips for Formulating a Return to Office Strategy

Any decisions on a back to work strategy should be made with flexibility and empathy in mind. This is not a time for mandates and ultimatums. These will only alienate and disengage already stressed employees.

A re-exit plan is just as crucial as a re-entry one. What will happen if COVID spikes again and lockdowns return? Plot this out clearly with a return to office playbook, considering the various scenarios and how they will impact your team.

Consider a staged return to workplace for your employees and stay engaged with your workers as they adjust to commuting and working in-office again; ask for feedback and be flexible with their time if you can.

When it comes to decisions on what employees should come back first, make those decisions based on the role, not the individual. Require managers to justify why those responsibilities would be better handled on-site, and ensure the reasoning is clearly explained to employees. They’re much more likely to be open to the idea if they understand why these decisions have been made.

What’s The General Feeling?

Research from a wide range of sources suggests that at least a third of employees (in some research, as many as two-thirds) would look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position.

While some people may be eager to return to an office environment, some may be anxious or have mixed feelings about it, and some will passionately hate the idea of returning.

Some may be concerned about health issues or struggle to fulfil their responsibilities at home; others may simply be happier foregoing the commute and work more productively outside of the office. Regardless, HR and managers will need to find ways to handle an employee with anxiety, alongside identifying the signs of anxiety in employees.

The most important consideration is to create a culture of openness and safety. Build a safe space for people to voice their concerns, and make sure they feel heard and supported.

Supporting Your Employees through Transitions

Many employees may feel like they’re getting the raw end of the deal if they are pressured to return to the office. Instead of framing it as only beneficial for the business, focus on the value for them, too. What positives will they experience from a return to the office? How will it benefit their day-to-day work, their development, and their team dynamics? What negatives are there – don’t forget the importance of surfacing the downsides.

Use my pros and cons matrix to help surface these points, and prompt open and honest conversations about your perspective, and the perspective of your team.

As people readjust to commuting, socialising, a different work environment, and ongoing challenges in managing work-life balance, it’s vital for managers to be present, available, and compassionate. 

Listen to employee concerns about returning to work, provide options where possible, be flexible, and make sure the right support networks are available to smooth the transition.


Need some help establishing a successful return to office plan for your team? Then contact me for support and guidance on how to create a practical office return policy that supports both employee and employer. Get in touch today.