How to Help Staff Feel Like Returning to the Office Is Worth It

Mace_how_to_help_staff_feel_like_returning_to_the_office_is_worth_it April 25, 2022 By: Rachel Mace, CAE

While many associations have returned to offices in recent months, the negatives associated with commuting and sitting alone in their workplace are leaving some staff asking if it’s worth it. To help combat these return-to-office concerns, be flexible and intentional about in-office days, reconfigure office space, and consider salary increases.

I knew returning to the office on a regular basis would be difficult after two years of remote work, but I grossly underestimated the challenges.

After a couple of days and despite organizational efforts to make the transition easier (i.e., catered breakfasts, mental health resources for employees), I questioned if me or my organization benefitted from my presence in our DC office. I managed a few “watercooler” sentences with colleagues before I scurried back to my office to go mask-free. Though our office does not have a mask mandate, a lot of my colleagues are not ready for mask-free interaction, and I respect that. As a result, my day was still mostly Zoom calls and sitting in isolation. And I know I’m not alone—many professionals are feeling this way as offices open back up.

On top of this, no association can control the external forces that make commuting back into the office a net negative for many. Inflation is outpacing wage growth, and in the nonprofit industry, wages lag for-profit counterparts. Employees who had the ability to reduce commuting costs to offset rising prices are facing tough personal finance decisions because of remote work ending. Due to inflationary trends, some people may soon have to choose between a vacation and their grocery bill. Productivity will almost certainly decrease [PDF] as commuting has already ramped traffic up in many major metropolitan areas.

Encourage teams to make the most of in-person days so that employees can feel like their trip to the office was productive and collaborative.

All of this puts associations in a tough spot in terms of return-to-office plans. On one hand, their members may have already returned to their offices and there may be pressure from stakeholders about an association’s unused office space. On the other hand, staff morale may fall when the office reopens. So, what can organizations do if fully remote work isn’t possible?

Make the Most of In-Office Days

First, on the days staff do have to be in office, a little flexibility can go a long way. Having core hours, rather than set attendance times, might be better so that employees can manage their commutes as efficiently as possible.

Also encourage teams to make the most of in-person days so that employees can feel like their trip to the office was productive and collaborative. For example, have in-person department meetings, brainstorming sessions, and check-ins. In addition, acknowledge the difficulties that some employees may experience as they transition back into the office and be aware of toxic positivity and dismissing the genuine sacrifice return-to-office requires.

Rethink Office Space

Remember that prior to COVID-19, most of us viewed office space differently. Consider how your association might be able to reconfigure space to allow for social distancing. Since transitioning back into public during these times will be quite difficult for some people, provide a quiet space where your staff can go if the office becomes overwhelming. Ask for design feedback from your staff, letting them know your limitations.

And when your staff returns, take time to interact with them at their workstations, thanking them for their hard work while everyone was remote. My return-to-office highlight was being thanked and appreciated by our executive team in the form of a handwritten note. Sometimes, employees who are introverted or work in more self-contained roles may not be invited to meetings where the appreciation and collaboration is happening. There is value in finding ways to connect with these team members when they first arrive back in the office. No one wants to feel like they drove in just to sit alone all day.

Reconsider Compensation

The final suggestion comes from an economic perspective. We now know that inflation has outpaced income growth these past two years and that most of the population took the equivalent of a pay cut because of it. Associations should prioritize compensation as much as possible, especially for staff members expected to be in office regularly. Employees who are not compensated at a rate that is adjusted to inflation might feel demoralized and start looking elsewhere for a better paying or remote position. Remember that your best asset as an association is your staff.

Rachel Mace, CAE

Rachel Mace, MBA, CAE is director of membership business Intelligence at the American Bankers Association in Washington, DC.