6 ways to make in-office time more effective

As the great “return to office” takes place, one thing we've learned is that while we may be returning to a physical office, we are not returning to work the way we used to.

Pre-COVID, employees could show up to work, sit in a cube or lock themselves away in their office, only getting up for coffee, lunch and bathroom breaks with little or lots of social interaction or collaboration with colleagues. Leaders didn't have think about whether this in-office time was spent in the most productive, connected and meaningful ways — there was no alternative.

But now the genie is out of the bottle and there are many different and highly effective ways to work. The onus is now on leaders — two-thirds of whom told professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers that employees need to spend three days or more in an office to maintain company culture — to prove the value of mandated office time.

Leaders can start by acknowledging two important truths: First, while employees do see value in being in the office, they don't think it's as important as executives do. Second, office work is likely to happen in a flex/hybrid arrangement for the foreseeable future.

More than twice as many executives want to work from the office every day as employees, according to Slack research. Also, when offered flexibility to work remotely some of the time, 87% of workers will take it, McKinsey found. They ideally want to spend three days at home.

Company leadership therefore must be thoughtful and intentional in creating flexible schedules and office environments that lead people to want to be in-office.

Here are some tips for making a highly engaged and satisfying in-office employee experience.

• Have the vast majority of employees in the office at the same time. Employees enjoy the socialization that in-office time creates, so naturally, they need to be in the office together. Many companies start with Tuesday through Thursday in-office to accomplish this. It's also important to create time in the workday for employees to connect over coffees, lunches and team-building exercises. It is this connection with colleagues that will energize the workforce regarding in-office time.

• Set up time for teams to collaborate while in-office. Team members believe that collaboration and teamwork are more effective in person, so be intentional in ensuring that happens. The days of employees showing up and locking themselves away in their cubes or offices will no longer suffice. As much as managers can, encourage employees to get their meeting and collaborative work done together in the office and save head-down work for remote days.

• Leaders should be visible and accessible to employees. Whether it be skip-level meetings or old-fashioned management by walking around, leaders can play a significant role in energizing others to want to come into the office simply by being present.

• Make mini-celebrations and break bread. To support team spirit and connection, find opportunities for weekly celebrations, particularly of ways the team has found success.

• Conduct team volunteer events in office. These events help reinforce the company's purpose and values and serve to draw employees together with pride in the company and the workplace.

• Provide flexibility regarding in-office days. Whether it be two, three or four days, recognize that employees will be going through an adjustment period and demonstrating empathy during the transition time will raise commitment and engagement. Consider other ways of offering flexibility, such as in hours.

By taking an intentional and practical approach to either a hybrid or full-time return to office, organizations can increase employee engagement, reduce unwanted turnover and reinforce company values and purpose.

• Paul Eccher, Ph.D., is president and CEO of The Vaya Group in Warrenville.

Paul Eccher
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