50% of companies want workers back in office 5 days a week–why experts say this strategy could fail

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After two years of working from home – and seeing return-to-office plans derailed by new Covid-19 variants – a growing number of companies are eager to get employees back to the office. 

About 50% of leaders say their company already requires or is planning to require employees to return to in-person work full-time in the next year, according to new research from Microsoft, which surveyed 31,102 workers around the world between January and February. 

This number stands in sharp contrast, however, to what employees really want: flexibility. In the same report, 52% of workers said that they are thinking of switching to a full-time remote or hybrid job in 2022. 

"A lot of business leaders have told me that they don't believe in hybrid work, that it has no place in their culture," Elise Freedman, a workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry who is helping companies coordinate their return-to-office plans, tells CNBC Make It

She continues: "But the companies who push for a full return-to-office could see serious ramifications if they don't offer employees the kind of flexibility and environment they're asking for … they'll just leave."

How can companies navigate this tension, and craft a return-to-office plan that works for all employees? Here's what business leaders need to know to navigate this new chapter of work: 

Employees don't understand when – or why – to go to the office 

There's a popular tweet that's been trending for weeks, poking fun at companies' vague explanations about the importance of offices for building a strong culture: 

Such criticism is warranted, Freedman points out, as most companies haven't established clear, detailed workplace strategies that explain when employees should be in the office and why. 

Microsoft's research supports these claims: 38% of hybrid employees say that knowing when and why to come into the office has been their biggest challenge navigating work in recent months, as only 28% of leaders have defined why and when to go to the office in their plans.

"Companies need to think through what, exactly, they want to accomplish by bringing people back, why, and be transparent with their employees," Freedman says. "That starts with answering 'What is the role of the office, and how do we get our most effective work done?'" 

If leaders point to the benefits of in-person work for culture and collaboration, the office needs to be conducive to that, versus "a cubical farm where everyone is on calls and no one is talking to each other," she adds. 

Design changes such as larger conference rooms, open floor plans and outdoor spaces could have a positive impact.

Freedman also encourages companies to use collaborative tools such as Google Docs or Slack where employees can view and chat about people's office schedules in real time. "If you show up and no one on your team is there, what's the point of going in?" she says. 

Managers feel caught between leadership and employee expectations

The success (and failure) of a company's return-to-office plan lies with its managers, who are struggling to convince leaders in the C-suite to design their work approach according to employees' needs. 

Future Forum, Slack's research consortium, interviewed close to 11,000 knowledge workers in the United States, France and other countries in November and found that 42% of executives are working from the office 3-4 days a week compared to 30% of non-executives. What's more, 44% of executives working remotely said that they would prefer to work from the office every day, while just 17% of employees said the same.

Managers are struggling to balance these competing desires: More than half of managers believe leadership is out of touch with employees, but 74% say they don't have the influence or resources to enact change for their employees, according to Microsoft's report.

"They're the point where all of this tension [about RTO] comes to a head," Jared Spataro, the CVP of modern work at Microsoft, explains. "But managers are also the key to helping companies execute effective work policies … your culture is going to rise or fall depending on how your managers implement it with employees." 

Spataro recommends that leadership require managers to have 1:1 discussions with employees to design a "team agreement" that outlines the business's needs, the team's needs and the individual employee's needs to determine how they can better align. 

"It's about getting people back to a shared headspace of what work will look like in the coming months, and being transparent about what employees versus leadership expect so there's no surprises," he adds. 

A tight labor market means employees are still in the driver's seat and aren't afraid to quit if their needs aren't being met. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest JOLTS report, another 4.3 million Americans left their jobs in January. 

"There's a lot at stake for leaders with return-to-office plans," Spataro says. "I tell business leaders all the time: 'You might be assessing employees as they come back to work, but mark my words, they're assessing you just as much – so be thoughtful, listen carefully and try to dig in with them on their needs.'" 

Check out:

Experts share the No. 1 pandemic work trend they think will stick around

The demand for flexible work 'will only accelerate' in coming years as workers feel more empowered

How people have changed the way they think about work, according to their therapists

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