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This article was contributed by Rebecca Corliss, VP of marketing at VergeSense.

The ongoing pandemic has complicated efforts to bring employees back to the physical office, with the Omicron variant further pushing back many companies’ plans. However, most organizations had already begun the process of at least to some degree even as uncertainty remains. 

The pandemic flipped the traditional workplace existing state of affairs on its head, and now business leaders are left to navigate the new world of work. It’s not just a challenge, however; this is also an opportunity to reimagine and re-architect how the workplace is structured and what the future of work looks like. The office must become more than just a place to work – it should be a dynamic, frictionless and social hub with a flexible workplace strategy that puts employee experience at the forefront. Creating this type of workplace environment is also key to remaining competitive. 

The employee experience: front and center

The move to remote work showed that productivity was still very possible even if employees weren’t coming to a physical office five days a week. In fact, for some, remote work proved more effective. And that means employers and building managers need to rethink what will naturally attract employees back to the office  – no longer will employees accept, “Well, this is how we’ve always done it.”

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021; resignations peaked in April and have remained high ever since. Employers are struggling to retain and find talent in this period of the Great Resignation. And there are also very real considerations around health and safety as the pandemic continues and new variants arise.

All these factors mean organizations are taking a new look at how they incentivize employees to work in an office, what amenities they can offer and so on. In fact, research found that 66% of organizations were concerned about the effect of returning to the office on the employee experience. Older, more legacy institutions are starting to consider offering significant amenities that were previously more likely seen offered by Silicon Valley tech companies and their ilk. 

They’re thinking more about the aesthetics of offices and how to create a more welcoming work environment. And they’re also looking more to decentralized offices – having smaller/satellite offices in different locations as opposed to just one main office – to attract and retain talent in other parts of the country.

Building transparency and open communication

It’s one thing to understand that the employee experience needs to be front and center – but it’s quite another thing to deliver that experience. How do you ensure you’re acting that has real employee value and that it isn’t just window dressing? Ignoring or misjudging your employees’ new workplace expectations, needs and preferences risks the possibility of sending a negative message to your workforce that could result in a mass employee exit.

A successful return to the office requires creating an atmosphere of open communication and transparency before and during the transition – and this should be an ongoing discussion. Create an open dialog with your employees. Be honest about your thought process related to the return, admit the concerns impacting your decision and be direct about your plan to create a return-to-work strategy based on employee experience.

Take the time to listen to what your employees have to say and how they use space. Collect direct input through:

  • Surveying employees on their expectations and concerns
  • Conducting roundtable discussions facilitated by team leaders to share feedback with higher-ups
  • Hosting a virtual town hall meeting and/or department-wide forums 
  • Leveraging spatial intelligence  to understand real-time occupancy patterns, serving as impactful validation for what spaces and amenities your employees value most

Asking the right questions 

To really get the right info needed to shape your approach, two key questions to ask employees are:

What does your ideal return to the office transition look like?

Don’t assume every employee has the same hopes and goals related to hybrid work. It’s useful to start a preliminary data collection period during the initial return to the office, including occupancy data. Then you can find trends to help determine the ideal distribution of employees in on-site spaces.

What are your expectations for the workplace moving forward?

To ease the back-to-the-office transition, it’s important for company leaders and employees to have the same expectations for not only the process of returning to the office, but for the future of work as well. The focus now may be on safely and efficiently returning to the office, but what happens after that? It’s essential to establish protocols for analyzing data-driven workplace insights on a regular schedule.

Use of the office should be purposeful – and empowering employees to choose the office when it makes the most sense for the activity they’re tackling that day can go a long way. Of course, you also want to ensure that you don’t wind up with all the employees in the office on just one or two days while the other days are empty – you run the risk of overburdening resources. But this also goes back to the earlier points about speaking with employees. Invest in measuring how often employees come in on their accord and start to observe the patterns. You can then use these patterns to better manage your office and the resources you provide. 

This data will help leaders manage another key concern – lack of predictability. Those without data often try to overcome unpredictability by dictating when people should come to the office. This approach comes at a high cost – it completely contradicts the purposeful nature of the office. Instead, you can begin rebuilding predictability by using room and desk booking tools, which facilitates effective space use and provide additional information and data for when and where employees work. If you’re really spending the time to understand how employees use space and what they use it for, you get the best of both worlds – predictability and employee autonomy.

Smoothing out the transition and focusing on employee experience

The return to the office is a process that will continue to unfold, and it’s one that necessitates consistent monitoring. Employee surveys and conversations are important, but they don’t provide a complete picture of how employees are experiencing the workplace. Workplace analytics tools will help fill in the usage gaps and round out the insights you need to successfully transition back to office life.

Rebecca Corliss is the VP of marketing at VergeSense.

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