Office revolt? Companies are worried about employee pushback during office reentry

To mitigate conflict risks, companies should be "over-communicating regularly" about return-to-work policies and the reasoning behind these strategies, according to one executive.

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Image: GettyImages/Klaus Vedfelt

Earlier this month, the staffing and recruiting company LaSalle Network published the second installment of its Office Re-Entry Index. The report highlights businesses timelines for office reentry, plans regarding vaccine mandates and concerns related to anticipated conflict during the office reentry process.

While many companies are accelerating reentry plans, the report also details increasing concern about employee pushback as companies bring employees back in-house after a year of remote work.

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Reentry plans accelerated

Overall, 74% of respondents said they will "be back in the office by fall" this year, according to the latest index. The report also cites a poll conducted at the company's May Office Re-Entry Virtual Event that found one in five businesses had "moved up their re-entry dates earlier than they originally anticipated."

Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, said that comparatively lower infection rates, increased inoculation and adjusted CDC guidelines due to "improving circumstances" are some of the reasons behind the accelerated office reentry plans.

"Cities across the U.S. have reopened, leading organizations to bring employees back into the office more confidently than we've seen over the last year," he said.

Rather than bringing all employees back en masse, some companies are choosing a staggered reentry timeline. When the first Office Re-Entry Index was published in March, 70% of respondents stated plans to "phase employees back in" and this number dropped to 57% in the latest index.

"With changing CDC guidelines, many cities have lifted capacity limits, allowing offices to return to their full capacity sooner than initially planned. This is likely why many companies are shifting up their return-to-office date and eliminating a phased approach," Gimbel said.

Vaccine mandates

In the U.S. more than 161 million people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, representing nearly half (48%) of the total population, according to the CDC's COVID Data Tracker. Amid declining vaccination rates and the rise of the contagious Delta variant, employers are considering vaccination mandates for returning employees.

In March, 52% of respondents were not planning to mandate employee vaccinations, 39% were undecided about requiring "employees to get vaccinated before returning to the office," and 66% said their organization had "not yet communicated plans with employees" about their stance on a vaccine mandate. In the latest index, 69% of businesses said they "do not plan to require employees to receive the vaccine."

"Many companies are following CDC guidelines because they have for the entirety of the pandemic, and it proved to have work," Gimbel said. "So, for now, many companies are opting to not require vaccination, but employees must show proof of vaccination in order to remain unmasked in-office."

Aligned with CDC guidelines, Gimbel said many companies require unvaccinated employees to always wear masks.

Employers warm to hybrid work

Compared with the March index, the latest findings show that employers still favor hybrid work models. In March, 77% of respondents said their workforce will feature a hybrid work model in 12 months, based on "information currently available." In the latest index, the same number of businesses said they were "planning a hybrid office for the future."

"We went from 16+ months working entirely from home, and it took an adjustment period to finally get accustomed to it," Gimbel said. "It would be too much of a shock, especially after the year we had, to require employees to be back 100% in-office, 5 days a week. They need a transition back."

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There has been speculation about a Great Resignation of sorts, as workers switch jobs amid hiring increases, signing bonuses and a job-searchers market. While working from home, Gimbel said, employees proved they could be "just as productive" and employers risk "losing talent if they immediately revert back to 100% in-office" amid the "war for talent companies are facing today."

"This transition back is a way to meet in the middle, providing a balance of in-office days for collaboration and building relationships, and days working remotely," he said.

Anticipated office reentry conflicts

Employers are concerned about conflicts arising as a result of new company policies. In March, 34% of respondents who had not started to bring employees back to the office anticipated "conflicts to arise" between the staff and executives related to "return-to-work policies" and the top predicted conflict being employees wanting to continue to work remotely.

In the latest index, 39% of respondents anticipated conflict to arise due to office reentry policies, 38% did not anticipate conflict and 23% were unsure.

"If employers want to avoid conflicts, communication is key," Gimbel said.

To mitigate the risks of these conflicts, Gimbel said companies should be "over-communicating regularly" about office reentry plans and the reasoning behind these strategies.

"Employees want to know the why behind the decisions. When companies can explain the reasoning and thought process, it can help ease employees' anxieties," he continued.

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