Return-to-Office Resistance: Navigating The New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rare disruption across business industries. Many employers that adopted remote work models for their teams are now hoping to bring employees back into the physical workplace. There’s just one problem: Most employees want to maintain a flexible work schedule. 

Thus, companies struggle to get their team on board with a return to the office. However, as rare as the pandemic has proven to be, businesses must manage the new normal like any other significant changes. They must consider professional and personal implications to find solutions that work for their unique organizations. 

What Do the Numbers Say?       

While the numbers vary across business types and industries, it’s clear that employees wish to preserve their autonomy. And even if your company implements a hybrid work model, many of your team members feel the same way.

A recent Gallup study with more than 9,000 U.S. employees revealed that 91% of workers hope to work from home at least part of the time once the pandemic ends. About 37% said they would prefer working remotely, and 9% implied they want to return to the office full-time. Most workers (54%) reported that they wish to divide their work hours between their homes and offices. These preferences, among many other factors, have led many businesses to adopt a hybrid work model.

Why Are Employees Hesitant to Return to the Office?

No matter what industry you belong in, you likely have more than one team member who is hesitant about returning to the office, whether part-time or full-timeThe first step in adjusting to the new normal and positioning your team to thrive is understanding employees’ legitimate concerns across the country. 

Health & Safety

As soon as the pandemic emerged, employers across industries began allowing many workers to perform their jobs off-site to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Pew Research Center reports that 20% of employees worked all or part of the time remotely before the pandemic, and that number rose to 71% within months.

While most workers prefer to work from home because of its flexibility, some are afraid of contracting the virus, among other health concerns. Your organization must be transparent about your precautions to keep your team members safe and healthy.

Loss of Flexibility

Flexibility has become one of the most important qualities for employees and job seekers. We live in a day where technology makes remote work practical for many different job roles. Many employees argue that they work more productively from home than in a traditional office environment—at least for most of their work responsibilities. Moreover, there is a growing awareness of mental health and wellness, and the flexibility of a hybrid work schedule can help employees maintain a work-life balance. 

Various Emotional Challenges

In a 2022 survey conducted by Eagle Hill Consulting and IPSOS, 52% of American workers reported increased anxiety levels about returning to work in the office. There are various concerns making employees anxious about in-person work, including:

  • Inflexible work schedules
  • COVID-19 exposure
  • Daily commuting
  • Childcare responsibilities

Indeed, employers have become more conscious of health and wellness in recent years, but the pandemic‘s impact on workers’ mental health has made it even more critical to prioritize it. Though we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we can’t forget the lockdowns and stay-at-home measures many workers worldwide were subjected to.

Many workers are hesitant to return to the office because of emotional challenges and unpredictable circumstances like housing costs, childcare, and the overall state of the economy. If you want to encourage all of your team to come on board for in-person work, you must ensure they feel like they are coming back to a psychologically safe work environment. 

How Can You Overcome Return-to-Office Resistance?

So, you understand that your return-to-office resistance is not unique. Now, you must learn how to address it healthily so that your managers and employees feel comfortable with the work schedules you are implementing.

Categorize Your Employees

First, put all of your employees into categories. For instance, the resistance-to-support spectrum categorizes workers into the following groups:

  • Active resistor
  • Passive resistor
  • Neutral party
  • Passive supporter
  • Active supporter

You will probably have some employees who don’t think twice about voicing their support or disfavor at the thought of returning to the office. Still, some may remain silent, while others will not have decided yet.

Have a Conversation  

Your next step will be to meet with the active and passive resistors on your team to find out why they object to the prospect of working on-site. Unless you get down to the core interests of each individual, you can’t solve the problems in front of you. While employees sometimes resist change for legitimate reasons, they often don’t feel like the higher-ups are hearing them. You need to listen to your team’s thoughts and opinions to know where everyone stands.

Get our RTO survey toolkit to better understand how they prefer to work when they’re ready to return to the workplace.

Bring Neutral Employees Into the Discussion

You will need to facilitate conversations between those who fall into the neutral category and those who passively and actively support the move to return to on-site work. If you have neutral team members, they don’t have any concrete opinions or conflicts with the change, so allowing them to hear other employees express their support and explain the reasons can help pull them over to see things the same way.

However, it’s essential not to take a heavy-handed approach. You will want to allow your neutrals to convert organically. Let their peers present the benefits and facts while allowing the undecided team members to draw their own conclusions.

Communicate the Benefits

While having passive support for your return-to-office plan is better than passive or active resistance, you will still want to pull your passive supporters into the active category. One way to do this is to clearly state the benefits of a hybrid work model. You don’t want to come at it with a zero-sum approach, meaning one party wins and loses. Instead, use a positive-sum strategy that benefits everyone on the team.

Many passive supporters may be worried about upsetting their resisting team members if they show their support. But if you help them develop the correct language and framing, they will feel more comfortable expressing their position.

Facilitate Your Active Supporters

Your final step will be to provide a platform to your active supporters to reinforce the advantage of your return-to-office plan, which will help solidify the change. With that said, make sure they don’t use their platform to bring others down. They should not imply that the team members who are not excited about returning to the workplace are incorrect or misguided in their beliefs. Your active supporters must express the benefits of welcoming language. 

If your company is one of many experiencing return-to-office resistance, you can’t afford to ignore it. Remember the concerns that many employees across the country have about getting back to in-person work, and start finding solutions for helping your managers adjust to the new normal. Also, consider the tips above for helping your team feel confident about your hybrid work plans