(Photo by Jacob Lund/iStock by Getty Images)

Employees and executives don’t agree on whether we should “return to work.” This difference of opinion is negatively affecting employee satisfaction and engagement, and it’s driving flexibility-seeking workers to look for jobs elsewhere. But it’s not too late to get on the same page, said Kun Gu and Matt Orozco of people-management platform Workday.

Data from a Future Forum Pulse survey report says that 75% of executives who work remotely want to return to the office three to five days a week while only 34% of employees feel the same way. The same report says that 66% of executives are designing post-pandemic policies with little or no input from employees.

If employers want to get on the same page and hold onto their employees, employees must be included in decision-making about the return to work.

“I do see a point in organizations wanting to bring people back, because I have noticed in my own personal experience, and some of the anecdotal evidence from my colleagues, that there’s been breakdowns in communication,” said Orozco, Workday’s senior manager of mindset and retention programs. But he’s also not convinced that returning to the office is the right move, especially for entire organizations.

I interviewed Orozco and his colleague, Kun Gu, who leads people analytics at Workday, for webinar hosted by From Day One titled “Including Workers in a Dialogue About Returning to the Office.” We discussed ways companies can use employee sentiment to come up with a return-to-work plan that balances productivity and social interaction while prioritizing psychological safety.

Giving Workers a Reason to Return to the Workplace

I asked them: Should employers incentivize, or even require, employees to return to the office? Compulsion won’t work, nor will covert coercion. “I don’t think you actually need to run a propaganda campaign to get people back,” said Orozco. “I think what you really need is just to make the decision really simple for [employees] to make themselves.”

Orozco and Gu emphasized that if you want employees to come back, then you must provide a workplace they want to return to: a safe environment where it's easy to both be productive and satisfy social needs.

“The way employees are going to utilize the office is probably going to be very different compared to the pre-pandemic,” said Gu. Workers need an office designed for private concentration and community collaboration, as well as facilities equipped with the tech they need to work with both remote and in-person colleagues.

For example, hot desks were popular a handful of years ago, but that kind of set up might mean employees don’t get a desk with the equipment they need or that it is tough to concentrate in a distracting environment. The new workplace should offer the same productivity that can be achieved at home—plus the ability to easily work with colleagues, no matter where they are.

Speaking about the return to office, clockwise from upper right: Kun Gu of Workday, moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, and Matt Orozco of Workday (Image by From Day One)

Consider also that some employees may not want to return to the unhealthy or unsafe workplace they left behind in 2020. “What if you got harassed at work? Why would you want to come back to that?” said Orozco. “In order to make your office more appealing to folks, regardless of where they come from, you have to make sure you’re addressing concerns that people don’t want to come.”

Gu pointed out the important role managers will play in creating an inviting environment. “When it comes to a return to the office, the trust between employees and the managers and their team is really important,” she said. Talking openly about when and where work will get done, Gu says, allows a team to stay productive and meet individual employee needs.

Understanding Employee Sentiment

To include workers in the conversation, employers must ask for employee feedback. Gu said that collecting sentiment data from staff accomplishes three things: understanding how free employees feel to decide how to do their work, assessing whether employees have received enough guidance on return to work policies–in other words, does the company need a better internal communications plan?–and identifying ways to make the office experience a positive one.

In fact, she recommended taking very short pulse surveys regularly. “Gathering weekly feedback is essential to get on top of small issues before they become big problems,” Gu said. Making better business decisions is hard if you’re gauging employee sentiment only once a quarter.

The panelists emphasized the importance of collecting demographic data, and asking employees to provide this information voluntarily rather than mandating it. For example, Workday uses its own employee sentiment tool, Peakon, to pair employee demographic data with employee sentiment data.

Rich demographic data enables employers to address very specific needs that may get in the way of return to work. “If you find that you have a large percentage of your workforce that has caregiving and parenting responsibilities, or has mental health concerns that can influence their decisions to come back to an office, then simply just knowing that can make you more proactive rather than reactive,” said Orozco.

Workday’s recent Employee Expectations Report, powered by Peakon data, notes that one in four comments were related to caregiving duties. Sixty-two percent of those concerns were raised by women and 38% by men. Better understanding of caregiving responsibilities has “unleashed an opportunity for organizations to meet a need that maybe they weren’t meeting before,” Gu said.

If you have a particularly small organization or one without a lot of diversity, skip the demographic data, which can violate employees’ privacy and compromise their ability to be honest. “It may not be as important as the overall sentiment and the feedback you’re getting,” said Orozco.

The project of returning workers to the office affords employers the opportunity to create a better work environment for all and to reinforce company values in tandem with staff needs. Gu and Orozco said this is an ideal time to reaffirm commitments to the employee experience.

“There is this opportunity to reinstall the purpose of the team and how we interact with each other because so many people have onboarded in the pandemic, where they don’t get that chance for organic relationship building that happens in an office,” Orozco said. “And in turn, we have to really refocus on how we create those connections.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and women’s experiences at work. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.