HR Headaches: My Employees Have Asked to Work From Home But We Want Them in the Office

Here’s how to reach a compromise when employees prefer remote work over in-person work.

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The office looks a lot different than it did back at the start of 2020, mostly related to remote work. Many executives are looking to reduce office space by as much as 30%, and 85% of managers say remote workers will become the “new normal” for many teams. And while many people feel more productive working from home, some reports find that people are less connected, and there are more silos within companies due to this widespread work-from-home shift.

The height of the pandemic anxiety is behind us (for the most part). As a manager, you might be tempted to ask your people to come back into the office. But what if your company asks people to return to the office, and you face pushback from employees? This is a very likely scenario because most people want the option to work remotely: 54% of workers want to keep working from home.

So what can you do in this case, when there’s a clash between what management wants compared to the employees? Below we explore what a compromise might look like, and important considerations for managers.

What happens when employees say no?

over half of workers (54%) say that whether they can work flexibly will impact their decision to stay at their current organization.

According to employment lawyers, it’s an employer’s right to have the employee attend the workplace, especially if that is how they previously were employed. An employee who refuses to attend can be terminated, according to experts. So long as the workplace complies with all health and safety regulations, simply feeling unsafe isn’t enough justification not to return.

However, the post-pandemic working environment has shifted towards democratization. After 2 years of having more autonomy over their working lives, many employees are hesitant to give it back. According to EY, over half of workers (54%) say that whether they can work flexibly will impact their decision to stay at their current organization.

The same study indicates that 75% of these workers are satisfied with their jobs. This suggests that, for many, being forced to work from the office really is a reason to quit. Legally, employers have the right to force an employee back to the office. However, doing so poses risks to employee retention — and office morale. Additionally, there are some legal rights that employees have which also need to be considered. 

Do you actually need people in a physical office?

Before asking your workforce to come back into the office, it’s worth considering if it’s really necessary. The answer might be yes! That being said, as a manager at a small company, be prepared to present a persuasive case for it. Many banks and law firms have started calling people back into the office, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are needed there in person, full time. And there has been massive pushback from these workers.

A McKinsey report found that “20 to 25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week.” That aside, the same report found that just because a job can be done remotely, it doesn’t mean that it should: “Negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding new employees are examples of activities that may lose some effectiveness when done remotely.”

You might lose valued employees if you dictate they return to the office

As a manager, you might be more comfortable with having your people in the office, working physically together. After all, this was how we operated before the pandemic. But a lot has changed in the last 2 years, including people’s attitudes towards work, and how their jobs fit into their lives.

According to LinkedIn, people are willing to sacrifice pay for a better work-life balance, and a Wall Street Journal report found that 78% of workers want location flexibility. Remote work provides the flexibility people are looking for; many have no intention of giving that up any time soon. Overall, 39% of workers would consider changing jobs if their employer wasn’t flexible around remote work. This number increases to 49% (almost half!) when looking at millennial and Gen Z workers. Put simply, if you dictate that people return to the office, you’ll risk losing them altogether.

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Finding a compromise to appease both your workers and your desire for some in-person time

Let’s say you’ve established that you’ll need your workforce to come in at least a few days a week. How can you manage this disconnect? You’ll need to find a compromise.

While reports say that collaboration has taken a hit because of remote work, it is possible to keep collaboration alive without your people being in the office full time. Harvard Business Review also cites research that found “close collaboration across distance actually strengthened relationships and engagement among colleagues because it required them to improve their communication and mutual support.” They find the best strategy is to let people work remotely for the parts of a project that are best done independently (like drafting outlines), and then come together when it will best serve a specific task or project.

Don’t waste people’s time asking them to commute to the office until the independent work has been completed.

So a compromise might look like staying away from mandates that dictate coming into the office X days a week. The days should instead be thoughtful for the task at hand. It isn’t about the frequency, but rather having people come in when it’s most useful and impactful to be together.

Other considerations

Since 41% of workers actually feel more productive working from home, it’s in your best interest to be mindful about asking about and planning in-person working sessions.

If your workforce doesn’t actually need to be in the office, consider why management is asking for in-person time. Since 41% of workers actually feel more productive working from home, it’s in your best interest to be mindful about asking about and planning in-person working sessions. This is especially true if performance and productivity have remained steady. You’ll simply breed resentment by forcing adults to follow a new work-from-office policy without providing an explanation.

If you find that your employees are not as productive, collaborative, or performing as pre-pandemic, forcing people back into the office may not solve these issues. There could be larger issues at play that are worth exploring as a first step.

Perhaps you’re implementing a return-to-work mandate or allowing people to work remotely permanently. Either way, be thoughtful with your approach and clear about why. If you believe some job functions or meetings are best done in person, ensure your reasoning is clear. Also, be considerate of your employees’ time.

While it’s true that some businesses function better having their workforce show up in person, maintaining and attracting good talent in the post-pandemic workforce means allowing for some give and take. What works for one company might not work for another. However, in the end, a good decision is one made with empathy, understanding, and clear communication. After all, according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, “the future of work is flexibility.”

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