Guide

The complete guide to returning to the office

To join the people-first world of work, it’s crucial to have a return to the office plan that not only takes care of the logistics and safety regulations, but also establishes a workplace that attracts and keeps the best talent.

This guide will help you address common hybrid working challenges and build a strong return to the office plan that truly works for your people, which covers:

Return to the office plan at a glance

The time is now. The company is ready to use the office more regularly again, but do you have all the ins and outs of it figured out?

  • How many desks will actually be in use?
  • Which teams and coworkers are in the office at any given time?
  • How many people can the office accommodate in different circumstances to maintain high safety standards?
  • How will you ensure it offers the type of spaces your employees need the most?
  • Do you have a plan for eliminating their health concerns about shared desks?
  • Above all, do you feel confident that the new hybrid work setup won’t leave anyone feeling excluded?

Merely rallying your team back to the office to rekindle focused, collaborative efforts and hope for efficiency and productivity won’t suffice. You need to know exactly how to reestablish the office for the new conditions.

This presents you with a unique opportunity to be a company where productivity and growth don’t come at the expense of mental and physical wellbeing – to create a people-first world of work. 

It is therefore crucial that the return to the office plan you put together not only takes care of the logistics and safety regulations but also creates a great workplace experience that attracts and keeps the best talent with a powerful combination of choice, flexibility, and the best of both worlds – home and office, synchronous and asynchronous collaboration – here’s how to make it happen.

STEP 1

Pick your hybrid working model

Before anything else, you need to be clear on what ‘hybrid’ will look like at your company.

The most common models are:

  • Remote allowed: Everyone works in the office for a set number of days per week and remotely the rest of the time – this model can further vary based on company policy and needs. 
  • Fully flexible: Different schedules for different staff members or teams – full autonomy is given to employees to choose how they choose to work or perform certain tasks.

We can already see different companies choosing different hybrid models. Apple, Google, and Asana will require staff to be in the office part of the time. HubSpot and Salesforce offer their employees a choice between home, flex, and office work models. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook are offering the option to remain fully remote. 

STEP 2

Understanding employees' needs and expectations

Our survey of 1,500 US and UK office workers revealed that the majority (54%) want to return to the office two or three days a week. To them, it’s comparable to going out to meet with friends. 

But not everyone’s the same – twice as many Americans find the prospect of returning to the office more exciting than their British counterparts (62% versus 34%).

58% of US workers are convinced that the office return will improve both their mental health and productivity, expressing readiness to invest in time and money to travel to the office. This is three times more than UK workers, of whom less than a quarter (18%) are prepared to do the same.

The differences don’t end there – only 9% of women are prepared to be in the office five days a week, compared to 17% of men. According to Microsoft, the majority of working mothers and junior employees have been struggling at work during the pandemic, compared to only 39% of predominantly male business leaders with an established career.

58%

of workers are convinced that the office return will improve both their mental health and productivity

54%

want to return to the office two or three days a week

9%

only 9% of women are prepared to be in the office five days a week

Define your workplace personas

To make your return to the office plan and the new hybrid workplace experience a success, start by looking at the different personas in your organization.

Our research shows that you’re most likely to find these four hybrid working personas:

  • The Soloist – independent and thriving when left to work with minimal intervention. They don’t mind coming to the office for a meeting when required but will default to working remotely whenever possible. The challenge will be how to engage the Soloist in the workplace culture and not allowing this type of worker to become too isolated.
  • The Culturalist – thrives on human connection and enjoys the social experience of coming into the office more than most. You’ll need to provide them with tools that give them visibility as to when and where their teammates are working, and easily bookable collaboration spaces.
  • The Adapter – flexible, adapts easily to any workplace. They expect a dynamic workplace culture and an office that’s fit for collaboration as well as quiet work. An intuitive space booking solution is exactly what they need.
  • The Traditionalist – strives for structure and stability. They prefer to be in the office at their own assigned desk.

Conduct a return to office survey with your people to understand their needs, routines, collaboration and hybrid work preferences. Then define your hybrid working personas.

Knowing your employee personas will help you judge the most effective office configuration, the tools and support they’ll need, alleviate return to work anxiety, drive user adoption of the new desk booking app, and know exactly how to keep different employees engaged.

Return-to-Office employee survey tool kit

Send the survey to your employees to better understand how they prefer to work when they’re ready to return to the workplace.

Get tool kit

STEP 3

Enabling hybrid collaboration

Challenge #1: Helping remote workers feel included

Without an inclusive culture, you risk waking up to an unequal workplace environment where those who choose to become remote-first feel left out or disadvantaged.

Over 55% of US and UK office workers say spontaneous conversations with colleagues are one of the best things about office life.

In-person meetings provide more opportunities for rich, informal conversations that build trust and strengthen emotional bonds with co-workers – something remote workers will find harder to achieve.

Solution → Support and hybrid collaboration

  • Offer guidance and support around flexible and hybrid working. Less than half of US and UK workers feel they’ve received it from their employer. 34% of junior employees say their productivity suffers when working remotely, compared to only 23% of seasoned professionals.
  • Introduce hybrid collaboration. Document and share your organization’s expectations around in-person collaboration and use project management tools to limit the number of meetings to balance synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.

Challenge #2: Attracting and retaining employees

The way you approach the next phase of work, beyond the initial return to the office, will determine who stays, who goes, who wants to join, and how well the company performs. An effective employee retention strategy is key to success.

Nearly half (45%) of employees report feeling happier after chance encounters in the office. Around a third say they make them feel more motivated, creative, and productive.

Unsurprisingly, 44% of workers expect to have more of these water cooler moments after the office doors open. Most anticipate easier collaboration (60%) and better productivity (52%) once they get there.

Yet, many suffer from FORTO (fear of returning to the office) or return to the office anxiety. Employees across the globe are struggling with burnout, depression, digital anxiety, even a constant state of panic.

Solution → Build a company culture where talent and productivity can thrive

Nearly four in 10 (38%) British and American workers expect to choose when they come to the office.

An effective employee retention strategy is making sure your return to the office plan introduces a culture shaped around the people rather than the office. This creates a culture of trust with flexibility.

  • Promote employee flexibility with balanced synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and schedules that focus on the output. To keep and attract the best talent, allow teams to take ownership of their work day – when they come in or where they sit.
  • Introduce business cadences – they can make the difference between presenteeism and productive wellbeing at work; between the disappointment of failing to find an adequate workspace and the people you need to see, and a creative work day that boosts your productivity

Visibility is key to building solid relationships, work recognition and value.  To enable it, use a desk booking app that offers short- or long-term bookings and interactive floor plans that show which workspaces are booked, by whom, and at what time. With these two powerful features, people can decide exactly when to come to the office to maximize opportunities for chance encounters and collaboration.

How to avoid remote employees becoming second class citizens

As we move to hybrid working, it’s not just office space that needs to adapt – company culture needs to be inclusive and take into account the different needs of employees.

Read more
remote working

Challenge #3: Communicating change

Employees expect a certain level of predictability when they come to the office. After a year-long pandemic, uncertainty about where or even how you’ll work can make it hard to adapt to the new office life. You may find your staff spending more time at home simply because it feels easier.

Whether it’s the transition to flexible working or new health and safety policies, timely and effective communication is key.

In other words, you need a smooth process for communicating changes and coordinating office hours and desk booking.

Solution → The right narrative and workplace app

Explain the principles for internal decision-making and make sure everyone knows that any return to office plan is likely to change and evolve.

For even greater efficiency, prepare templates for the different situations most likely to occur:

  • Sending out staff surveys
  • Introducing the return to office plan in phases
  • Informing people of changes to the plan, such as if Covid restrictions force you to limit access to the office
  • Communicating safety guidelines and the steps to follow

Use a desk booking app that facilitates effective and timely communication with:

  • Seamless integrations with scheduling tools, such as Office 365 and Google Workspace, to speed up coordination of meetings and room booking.
  • Automatically updated real-time floor plans that indicate which desks are sanitized and free to book, or what amenities are available in different areas.

STEP 4

Maintain high safety standards

Challenge #1: Keeping the office safe

A scenario where an employee just grabs a random desk to work for a few hours is no longer acceptable. People worry about how returning to the office will affect their health.

39% of workers say they’ll no longer use shared kitchen areas, cups, and utensils in the workplace. A quarter (24%) won’t even use shared elevators. You need to be sure that you rally your troops safely, and so do they.

Solution → A strong process and sanitization

The first question to consider is the process – when and how you’ll open the office doors. Even if you decide to welcome everyone at the same time, developing different phases of office availability will ensure you’re prepared for any future scenario.

These could be:

  • Closed doors: everyone works remotely.
  • Restricted access: the office opens only to those whose job duties require on-site presence.
  • Limited capacity – opening to those whose productivity suffers working from home.
  • Full capacity: the office is open to everyone.

Each phase will cover specific criteria for:

  • External events, like the rate of vaccinations and government-imposed restrictions
  • Internal constraints, such as budget, the tech and equipment available, and the chain of decision-making and approvals required
  • Space availability: how many employees the office can accommodate, with government restrictions in place
  • Cleaning protocols for the office and the building
  • Employee guidelines on office access, desk usage
  • Visitor management and policies

Finally, audit and update the cleaning and sanitization routines:

  • Coordinate with the building manager that all air filters are inspected and changed if necessary.
  • Make sure cleaners use disinfectants when cleaning surfaces.
  • Stock up on your supply of face masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, gloves, etc.

Challenge #2: Maintaining compliance with changing regulations

In a post-pandemic office economy, setting up a safe office workplace is not enough. Your return to the office plan needs to be agile and outline the process for achieving that.

You also need to:

  • Stay on top of the changing rules and regulations on workplace safety.
  • Control any potential outbreaks in the workplace.
  • Be ready to change and adjust the office layout rapidly at any given moment.

Solution → Desk booking software that gives you agility

The fastest and easiest way of making sure you’re always compliant with health and safety regulations is using digital tools that automate as much as possible of the process.

Look for features with:

  • Self-certification that allows you to pre-screen employees before they check in to their reserved spaces.
  • Flexible policy settings that allow you to change employee permission levels, or instantly block workspaces dynamically.
  • Customizable layouts to adjust office spaces and maximize the use of real estate.
  • Occupancy data gathering and contact tracing.
  • Touchless mobile check-in to ensure safe experiences

STEP 5

Optimize your workspaces for hybrid working

Challenge #1: Redefining the purpose of the office

Over a third (34%) of US and UK workers expect their employers to introduce more collaborative zones while 37% want extra quiet working areas, and another 26% would like to see pet-friendly working zones in the office.

Understanding whether you have the right type of spaces for your people is just the start. You also need to make sure that the workplace doesn’t become a string of worries – about the lack of touchless desk and room check-in, the inability to quickly locate the right resources or a conference room fit for a hybrid meeting, a cumbersome 15-minute process to launch a video call.

If the office is a bad experience, people will simply avoid it. 

Solution → Office as a destination

To motivate people to come in, the office needs to become a destination worth returning to – an environment where people can focus as well as enjoy collaboration, team building, and chance encounters that, instead of interrupting work and increasing anxiety, lead to creativity, new initiatives, and help projects move along faster. 

To deliver that:

  • Create activity-based office neighborhoods to facilitate collaboration with the right amenities they need.
  • Collaboration hubs with video conferencing and  hybrid meeting setup to make meetings more inclusive 
  • Social hubs with more open spaces and drop-in zones for chance encounters, impromptu brainstorming sessions and small social gatherings. 
  • Silent zones for undisturbed, focused work for those coming to the office to run away from bad internet connection, or to take care of their mental wellbeing by enjoying a peaceful cup of coffee. 
  • Resident zones occupied by those working primarily in the office. These can be subject to desk booking requirements or can use permanently assigned desks.
  • Promote cadences – if people can use recurring bookings to reserve a spot in advance. 
  • Involve employees in the decision-making process. From surveys to communicating how the space usage data is used to improve their workplace experience, welcome opportunities for employee engagement.

Challenge #2: Deciding how much office space to keep paying for

Once you’ve given your people the freedom to build their cadences, how do you know how much of their work will take place in the office? And when? 

Microsoft found that more than half (54%) of their staff who had chosen to return to the office were spending less than a quarter of their time there.

You risk juggling days of an overcrowded office with days that leave it nearly empty.  And then there are zombie bookings – people reserving a desk or a meeting room but not showing up, thus leaving others locked out of a workspace and you paying for a half-empty office. 

The cost of renting and maintaining company real estate may soon become too high.

Solution → Granular space utilization data

1. Understanding how much office space to keep will depend on: 

  • Health and safety regulations, particularly the required distance between workspaces.
  • Knowing how many people plan to return to the office and how often.
  • Evaluating whether there are teams that require permanently assigned desks.

2. Track whether spaces are used as planned

The only way to do it effectively is using desk and room booking software like Kadence that uncovers work patterns among staff with:

  • real-time floor plans and check-in data
  • historic space usage data showing desks-to-people ratio and most populated areas on any given day or week

3. With these space utilization insights, you’ll be able to: 

  • Assess which office areas are popular, which need a redesign, and where to adjust the cleaning schedule
  • A/B test if the reconfigured spaces worked, allowing you to replicate a redesign elsewhere
  • Forecast demand and make the necessary provisions
  • Evaluate whether to keep a larger office or use a “pay as you go” coworking space
  • Use real-time reservations data to eliminate zombie bookings and even tackle “serial offenders”. And if the desk booking app comes with an auto desk release feature, you won’t have to do even that. The tool will do it for you. 

You’ll achieve two goals: optimizing the use of resources and improving the workplace experience.

Challenge #3: Ineffective desk and room management

Manually monitoring office capacity, allocating seating, keeping a register of who’s planning to come in or who booked a spot but didn’t use it, can quickly become a full-time job that turns into a negative experience for office managers as well as employees. In fact, a quarter (25%) of US and UK employees worry about just that – finding the right kind of workspaces once the office doors open.

Not knowing if your team will be at the office or working remotely is a challenge, too, especially when collaborating on projects. You don’t want employees to be waking up an hour earlier and suffering through a long commute only to end up working alone because none of the people they need to meet are there.

Solution → Desk booking software that automates a better user experience

To facilitate return to the office, choose a desk booking app that optimizes workplace management:

  • Enables auto desk release function that allows the administrator to set a time limit for checking into the workspace booked before it’s released back to the pool
  • Allows team managers, PAs, and admins to book spaces on behalf of others in their team
  • Automatically updates the desk booking system as you begin to use a workspace and notifies the cleaners once you’re done 
  • Integrates with other tools you use daily

And is convenient enough to drive user adoption. 

  • Prioritizes excellent UX and UI that makes even the least tech-savvy employee feel at ease
  • Shows the amenities in different rooms and office areas to allow people to book a space that perfectly matches their needs
  • Upgrades the booking experience by providing the option to add a parking space to a desk reservation
  • Uses wayfinding functionality to help people easily find the desk they’ve booked, even if they’ve never been to the office before
  • Saves time with on-the-go desk booking via mobile app

With optimized desk and room booking experience as one of the pillars of your return to the office plan, you’ll not only save time and resources on logistics and facilities management but also strengthen work relationships that foster productivity and job satisfaction.

You’ll give your teams something to look forward to – a return to the office that perhaps felt uncertain now becomes exciting.

Get started with Kadence

Book a demo with our team to discover how we can help you create a hybrid workplace for your people.

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