26 November 2021

Five top tips for returning to the office

Ted Hewett, the marketing manager at Totem, shares his five top tips for returning to the office, from rethinking the office to role modelling


Ted Hewett

Ted Hewett


Future of Work Strategy culture and values


Ted Hewett, the marketing manager at Totem, shares his five top tips for returning to the office, from rethinking the office to role modelling

As part of my job, I get to speak to lots of different HR leaders across the UK, and all of them share one key thing at the moment: their return to the office plans.

As I write this, we’re officially past “Freedom Day” and the world around us is attempting to return to a version of normal, but in our professional lives this “return” is largely chaotic and is utterly different from company to company. No two plans could, or even should, look the same.

“Hybrid” is a word that seems to be front of mind as well, and of course with remote working being here to stay, we’ve got to learn not only how to manage workers in two (or more) locations, while at the same time combating 18 months of new habits and routines that are counter to the desires businesses have to get people back in the office, in whatever capacity leaders deem appropriate.

There have been some real themes I’ve spotted throughout my conversations, so I thought I’d jot them down and share them with you today.

Make people want to be there

Before the recent home working revolution, not being in the office was largely not on the table. Now that’s changed, rather than a command and control approach (“you must come in on x days”) I’ve come across lots of organisations who are being a bit more human-centric.

Having an environment that people actually want to come to, and reasons to come to the office, is the single biggest barrier and also the best opportunity for you to begin resetting those customs and rituals that were so important before.

Sure, having a food van or some kind of fun activity might be an incentive for those who already want to come in, but these are “nice to have” moments rather than real habit creators, and are clearly neither cheap nor scalable.

Instead, some companies, such as the accountancy firm Cooper Parry, have done things like a “work from anywhere” policy, or have set out new principles that accommodate people and give them the thing they really want – choice. As someone who works well in both settings, the ability to choose is 100% improving my wellbeing, but is also making me want to go in more rather than seeing it as a burden.

The truth is, incepting an idea like “you want to come to the office” is impossible, so perhaps a helpful way to think about it is being clear about the sorts of things people will actually do in the office. Team meetings, 1-to-1’s, breakout sessions, workshops… the idea of going into the office to sit and do the job I’ve been doing very well remotely for the last 18 months seems like a bit of a red herring to me, and ultimately will drive employees away, so why not actively redesign how people work and give them reasons to come in?

Rethink your office

This is a bit of an extension of my first point, but it is critical. It’s all well and good talking about rethinking how we use an office space, but doing it is another matter.

Where do people want to meet? What works as a collaborative space? Are there areas of your office that people just don’t want to go to? It’s incumbent on us as leaders to critically assess our spaces to make sure they are working the best way for people, otherwise the space is working against us.

Keeping an open dialogue with your people about the space is important here, but as I alluded to, it’s actions that will speak louder than words. Move the desks around, try new configurations, embrace the tech you have and create hybrid meeting spaces and ones just for in-person sessions. There are so many small things that can be improved, and while they all might feel small and non-essential, each and every one will get you a little closer to that goal of making people want to be in the office.

Your people are consumers

Alongside this you might want to consider the roles that make the office tick. Office manager, reception, concierge… these are the people that can make a huge difference on an individual level, and have probably had some of the toughest times over the last 18 months as their roles have largely not been required.

If we were in the bricks-and-mortar retail world, we’d obsess about ensuring a customer had a great experience so they would come back and become repeat business. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for how we think about employees too.

Make sure that the people who create these experiences have the tools and freedom they need to do so for everyone who walks through your front door. Ultimately, your employees are consumers in their home lives, so it only makes sense to treat them as such in their work life, especially if “repeat business” means coming back to the office.

Role modelling

The idea of role modelling is one I’ve come across before, but it was so relevant and framed so eloquently by Dr John Blakey when we delivered an episode of our series Unlocking Culture about creating a trust-based culture that I just had to include it.

Human beings, like many animals, look to their role models to dictate our behaviour and social customs. Take the example of the age-old question: “what time do you leave the office?” If a leader never leaves before 6, then naturally there will be a stigma against leaving the office any time before that (I’m sure you could think of an example from your own workplace of small cultural challenges caused by a top-down command like this). This has largely been fine when we were all together and visible, but with a hybrid workforce this type of role modelling might be confusing or unclear.

So, how we can harness this power for good in today’s office? Your leaders who are in the office, how are they broadcasting how they act? What channels are they using to display that, in fact, being in the office is cool again? Are they encouraging the right behaviours in others who are also coming in?

How your leaders act, and how they show how they act, dictates your overall culture, so ensuring that they are onboard, aligned, and being as visible and intentional as possible will do wonders when it comes to building habits and encouraging the return to the office. Run focus groups and regular check-ins with this population, as they will be doing most of the heavy lifting during this period.

Maintain flexibility

Another big aspect to think about is how to maintain as much flexibility as possible during this transition. It sounds obvious but might be more subtle than you think.

For example, a big thing that remote working has encouraged is more autonomy for employees, and many different habits and routines will have been formed around this newfound autonomy. Some of these will be positive, others less so, but removing that autonomy right out of the gate will leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths and will only drive them further away from the office.

Molly Johnson-Jones from Flexa spoke to us about this exact problem, and she advised that continuous experimentation, an open dialogue, and offering as much choice to employees as possible are the best approaches. After all, if we truly want people to want to be in the office, it must be a real choice rather than something they were forced to do.

Whether you want some or all of your people back in the office, it’s not going to be quick or easy to formulate new habits and behaviours. The one big point to remember, whatever approach you take, is that all change is hard, and through all the negative feedback and challenges you face, all your people really want is to be treated like people, not enactors of policies.

Ted Hewett is the marketing manager at Totem, the employee experience app that helps to build your company culture from anywhere.