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Are We Doing Enough to Encourage People Back to the Workplace? As the landscape of work continues to evolve, the question arises: What can we do to make our workspaces places people actively want to return to?

By Arthur Wilson

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Delmaine Donson | Getty Images

The UK has emerged as the work-from-home (WFH) capital of Europe, as highlighted by The Guardian last summer, with up to 40% of us working away from the office at least some of the time. This shift toward remote working has led to a near overnight rise in the amount of underutilised office space across the country, raising concerns about the future of workplace dynamics and the utilisation of commercial real estate.

As the landscape of work continues to evolve, the question arises: Are we doing enough to encourage people back into the workplace?

The stick approach: Compulsion over persuasion.

In the quest to re-populate underutilised office spaces, some companies have adopted a slightly more draconian stance by wielding the threat of job loss as a means to force employees back to the office. According to a January 2023 Business Insider report, this approach has seen employers leveraging economic uncertainties as a cudgel, insinuating that refusal to comply with return-to-office mandates could lead to termination.

This method of compulsion, however, may backfire for several reasons. First, it erodes trust between employees and management. Trust is a cornerstone of effective teamwork and employee engagement; once undermined, it can be difficult to rebuild. This approach can also lead to a decrease in employee morale. Workers who feel coerced into returning to an office environment may experience heightened levels of stress and dissatisfaction, which can, in turn, affect their productivity and quality of work.

Such tactics ignore the benefits that flexible working arrangements have brought to many individuals, too. The ability to work from home has offered employees a better work-life balance, reduced commuting times, and provided a more personalised work environment that can lead to increased productivity. By dismissing these benefits, companies risk alienating a significant portion of their workforce who may have come to value these aspects of their work life highly.

The potential for increased employee turnover is another significant drawback of the stick approach. Skilled professionals in today's job market have options, and many may choose to leave an employer who they feel does not respect their needs or autonomy.

A brand's reputation can also be harmed when it treats staff in this way. The perception of being an authoritarian or inflexible employer can deter prospective employees from applying - and also put off shoppers from buying.

The carrot approach: Incentives and enticements.

In contrast to the more coercive tactics, a growing number of employers are exploring creative and positive strategies to encourage their workforce back into the office. As reported by an April 2022 Forbes article, these strategies range from tangible perks like free gourmet meals, enhanced on-site health and wellness programs, and subsidies for commuting, to more intrinsic incentives such as fostering a collaborative community and providing opportunities for personal and professional growth within the office environment.

Employers are also redesigning workspaces to make them more appealing and conducive to productivity and collaboration. This includes creating more open and flexible work areas, investing in ergonomic furniture, incorporating green spaces, and ensuring access to natural light—all aimed at creating a healthier and more inviting workplace. The rationale behind these efforts is that if employees find the office environment to be superior to their home office in terms of comfort, amenities, and opportunities for collaboration, they are more likely to see the value in commuting.

These positive incentives are rooted in an understanding that modern employees value autonomy and work-life balance. By offering benefits that directly address these values, employers signal their commitment to their employees' well-being and professional development. This approach not only encourages office attendance but also strengthens the employer-employee relationship, fostering loyalty and a sense of belonging among the workforce.

The carrot approach better acknowledges the changed landscape of work and the diverse needs of the modern workforce. By prioritising persuasion over enforcement and offering incentives that genuinely enhance the work experience, employers can create a compelling case for returning to the office.

Creating a workspace worth returning to.

The transformation of office spaces into environments that employees are eager to return to involves much more than cosmetic upgrades. It necessitates a strategic approach to design that prioritises both the physical and psychological needs of the workforce. Research and practice have shown that well-designed office environments can have a significant impact on productivity, wellbeing, and ultimately, the financial health of an organisation.

Research from the World Green Building Council suggests that office design can affect productivity and wellbeing, highlighting factors such as indoor air quality, natural lighting, and the presence of natural elements, which can enhance employee performance by up to 11%.

A successful office refurbishment that truly appeals to employees needs to touch on several key areas:

  • Layout: The office layout should promote both collaboration and individual focus. Open-plan offices can foster a sense of community and make collaboration more straightforward, but they should be balanced with private areas or quiet zones where employees can concentrate on tasks without distractions.
  • Lighting: Natural lighting is highly prized for its positive effects on mood and energy levels. Where possible, office designs should maximise the amount of natural light penetrating the workspace. For areas where natural light is scarce, the installation of LED lighting that mimics natural light can reduce eye strain and improve concentration.
  • Design and aesthetics: The aesthetics of an office can significantly impact how employees feel about their workplace. An office refurbishment should incorporate brand colours, art, and biophilic design elements such as plants can enhance the visual appeal of the office and create a more inviting environment. Ergonomic furniture and equipment are critical to ensuring employees are comfortable and can work without risking their physical health.
  • Wellbeing: Offices that include features aimed at promoting employee wellbeing, such as fitness centres, relaxation areas, or even spaces for meditation and yoga, not only contribute to the physical health of employees but also demonstrate an employer's commitment to their overall wellbeing.
  • Inclusion: A workspace that doesn't provide adequate facilities for parents, those with disabilities, or employees of various religious beliefs will also struggle to tempt every employee back willingly. Inclusive workspaces also help foster a better sense of togetherness, with millennial and Gen Z staff in particular seeing inclusivity as vital when it comes to choosing a company to work for.

Encouraging employees back into the office in the post-pandemic landscape requires a nuanced approach that balances incentives with an understanding of modern working preferences.

While coercive strategies may yield immediate returns, they do not address the long-term goal of creating a fulfilling work environment. By offering positive incentives and investing in office spaces that prioritise employee well-being, businesses can foster a more engaged and productive workforce.

The future of the workplace lies not just in being a place of work but in being a space where employees feel genuinely valued and inspired.

Arthur Wilson

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Marketing Consultant

Arthur is a digital marketing consultant specialising in advising small businesses and startups. He works closely with brands including Workstars and is passionate about helping organisations to better engage their people and create thriving cultures.

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