2 Cents: Rethinking the return to the workplace

Return to workplace is more than just a shift back to the physical desk in the office, and requires careful planning to make it a success.
By: | May 9, 2022

With pandemic restrictions being gradually lifted around the world, the transition from remote to hybrid work has been accelerating, not least driven by some of the biggest tech companies in the world.

Meta employees have been returning to the office since March 28, while from April 23, Apple employees are required to work from the office at least three days a week. The latter arrangement is also being experienced by Google employees, although this is an arrangement that is unlikely to last, predicted Laszlo Bock, the former HR head of Google.

And before you think that Google employees will eventually work entirely from home; contrarily, Bock expects Google’s hybrid work schedule to end sooner rather than later, with a full return to the office on the horizon for employees.

Or more specifically, he predicted that hybrid work at Google will last three to five years before employees are back in the office full-time.

While Bock’s views do not necessarily represent those of Google’s, his assertion that many executives at large companies want employees physically back at their office desks may not be far wide of the mark.

The question that must be considered, however, is this: Will forcibly making employees return to the office (at the threat of termination or being bypassed for promotion) truly benefit any organisation?

Before even considering the labour laws of different countries an organisation may operate in, forcing employees back to the office is likely to be counterproductive. When employees decide how frequently they want to come back to the office, they are likely to be more engaged and loyal.

At a time when flexibility at work is being pursued by employees who prioritise personal wellbeing and a healthy work-life balance, HR leaders need to improve employee engagement and channels of communication. They need to seek feedback from employees and understand the concerns of those who remain reluctant to return to the office.

Whether that eventually transpires to a full return to the office will largely depend on each organisation and its objectives. Less ambiguous however, is how a mandatory order to return to office can potentially push disgruntled employees nearer to the exit door.

With organisations struggling to retain their best talent, HR leaders need to communicate with employees and agree on a return-to-office arrangement that suits the needs of all parties.

For employees who have already agreed to return to the office, more can also be done to enhance their back-to-office experience, and in the long-term, their desire to stay with their employer.

Making internal employee mobility a core priority is a good place to start. Rather than always turning externally for talent to fill voids within the organisation, why not promote within to allow employees to build their skills and advance their careers? After all, when employees flourish, they are more likely than not to stay where they are.

Other more mundane factors could also come into play. In Singapore, where up to 75% of the employees who are able to work from home can now be at the workplace at any one time, the daily hassle of commute is one of the main reasons keeping people away from the office.

According to a new study by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), employees in Singapore are more likely to want to return to their workplaces rather than continue working from home if MRT trains are less crowded and journey times are shorter.

As Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Finance Minister and co-chair of the country’s COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, said earlier this year, “We will no longer mandate the requirement for splitting reams, but we will strongly encourage employers to stagger the start times and implement flexible working hours, and of course, employers must continue to implement all prevailing safe measurement measures.”

Just as the onset of the pandemic compelled organisations to think deeply about how to succeed in a remote work environment, the return to office requires the same flexibility, organisational collaboration, and two-way communication between employer and employee to succeed.

With more employees returning to the office, the stage is also set for Asia’s HR community to re-establish in-person connections with their external colleagues and peers in the region. Here at HRM Asia, we invite you to join us at HR Tech Festival Live, a one-day, in-person event that will take place on May 10 at the Suntec Exhibition and Convention Centre in Singapore.

As part of the week-long HR Tech Festival Asia 2022, HR Tech Festival is a not-to-be-missed event that aims to platform for HR leaders and practitioners in Asia to interact and exchange ideas and thoughts on navigating a new world of work, including the return to office.