We have now passed the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many things are gradually returning to pre-pandemic norms. In some cases, things have already returned to normal. But one undeniable and lasting change is the effect of the pandemic on remote work. Before the pandemic, only a small number of people worked remotely in the country. During the pandemic, almost everyone worked remotely. Now, a large proportion of office workers are continuing to work remotely.
But this “stickiness” of remote work is not without its challenges. Organizations have been noticing the disadvantages of remote work. As a result, they have been trying to encourage their employees to return to work more often.
BlackRock is the latest major employer to require its employees to return to the office. This will start in September, and they must work at least four days a week. In late 2021, the organization implemented a previous policy requiring staff to be present in the workplace at least three days a week. The company has upped the number of days employees must spend in the office weekly to emphasize the benefits of having staff members in the same physical space, such as career development and growth.
But the workplace occupancy statistics aren’t showing much movement back to the office and remain far from pre-pandemic levels. In fact, in the latest data releases, there’s been a decline in office occupancy.
According to Kastle Systems, their 10-city average occupancy rate based on their national network of office keycard usage declined to 49.3% the week of May 10th from 49.9% the week prior. In addition, 9 out of 10 of the city metro areas declined, with only New York City increasing. It appears that Return to Office (RTO) is stalling as we approach 2023’s summer months.
Incentivizing Remote Workers
So what are employers to do?
I propose that employers resort to bribing their employees. Yes, bribing, or more technically--creating incentives--would be a perfectly logical approach by employees to get people to do something when they are loathed to do so. With about half of employees nationwide reluctant to RTO, it’s time for a novel strategy to bring employees back to the office.
The following are three types or categories of incentives:
- In-Office Perks. These incentives aren’t direct payments to employees but are free (or reduced-price) items or services that free up an employee’s disposable income to be spent elsewhere. They include food and beverages (e.g., cafeteria, coffee), an onsite gym, and parking or public transportation, the latter of which is very much a disincentive to come into the office in crowded big cities. They could also include company “swag” and technology like laptops and tablets.
- Social Activities. In addition to “free stuff,” a company could offer various activities that entice employees to the office. In-office team-building exercises or field trips (e.g., finance professionals touring the New York Stock Exchange) would be examples of in-person socialization.
Intimate guest presentations that aren’t digitally broadcast and regular after-work meetups like happy hour could also convince workers, especially younger ones, to leave their homes and come into the office for the day. If meeting at a bar isn’t for everyone, the gym could offer various wellness and fitness classes like yoga or power cycling.
- Money and/or Career Advancement. The final type of incentive is the most direct and often the most motivating—money. If getting employees back to the office continues to be difficult, instituting a higher compensation structure for the majority of the week in-office workers may be effective. This could be a higher salary or end-of-year or spot bonuses.
If longer-term in-person collaboration is key to the business, “time and a half” wage rates could be tied to the hours of in-person attendance. Finally, stressing career advancement by providing access to career coaches and mentors at the office could get career-minded employees back without extra monetary outlays.
Incentives can be controversial because they can be costly to maintain and payout. And once implemented, they could create a less intrinsically motivated workforce. But with office occupancy rates stalling at 50% across the country, desperate times call for desperate measures. Working remotely is easier than ever, and the pandemic proved it was a viable way of working week in and week out.
Those organizations that highly value in-person attendance and collaboration need to adapt. Bribing employees to come back to the office may appear unseemly, but it’s not that different from other ways organizations motivate employees. Looking at it from another perspective, Return To Office incentives could be an innovative approach to how organizations compensate and motivate employees.
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