Return to the office | How to design experiences for the future of work

How to design experiences for the future of work

By Sally Winston, Head of EX Solutions Strategy EMEA, Qualtrics

The latest challenge that businesses must endure after a year of uncertainty is preparing employees for the return to the office.

Many are juggling employees who are keen to get back in as soon as possible, those who want to return in the future and those who would prefer to remain remote long-term. The question in focus becomes how do you acknowledge and build upon the benefits created by flexibility on productivity and engagement with the desire to bring back the energy, culture and collaborative spirit that an office environment creates?

We asked 1,000 UK employees what they wanted from the future of work. Download the report to discover more.

The most pressing responsibilities at this stage fall into assessing the readiness of employees to return to the office and making the appropriate distancing, sanitisation and compliance arrangements to ensure they can do so safely.

But beyond getting the critical basics right, with this recalibration of employee experiences for the post-COVID era, organisations have a great opportunity to listen and act on what employees want, so they can strengthen employee engagement, loyalty and belonging.

Getting better acquainted with flexibility as a long-term solution

The biggest change that businesses and employees have had to adapt to in the last 12 months plus was flexibility. Acclimatisation was hard at first, but now we’re more than a year in, we see that productivity has actually improved.

Even with a background of disruption — and employees having to set up remotely while managing personal responsibilities — the majority of managers (55%) said their direct reports have been more productive working remotely, with 51% of employees agreeing they have been more productive themselves. The top reasons for improved productivity were flexible schedules, no commute to the office, and the ability to focus on work with fewer interruptions.

Businesses also have to contend with a reset in expectations. Over half of respondents (53%) said a long term remote work policy would make them consider staying at their company longer. In fact, 10% said they would probably quit their job if they were forced back into the office full time. When looking for a new role, 80% said it was important their employment afforded them the opportunity to live anywhere.

People have already started making life-changing decisions based on the assumed continuation of flexibility — 25% of Gen Z and 17% of Millennials said they moved during the pandemic. For that reason, as we start to make the transition back to office life, employees will expect flexibility to still be an integral part of their work experience.

We need to design a hybrid mix of physical and remote work in such a way that benefits employees while also creating optimal company performance. To keep this balance, and improve retention, businesses must keep listening to employees about the reasoning behind their preferences on returning to the office rather than focusing solely on the organisations’ desire to return to ‘normal’ operations.

Striking a comfortable and safe balance

The very nature of the modern workforce, which has become a decentralised global network of employees, means that in each team you might have people in different regions, obeying different government orders. This makes it incredibly difficult to standardise an approach to employee experience.

As employees start to return to the physical office, wherever that may be, it’s important that they are comfortable, safe and catered to from a health perspective. Businesses should adhere to all the rules set in place by country leaders, and provide the correct resource and distancing measures where applicable.

Tools such as symptom checkers, track and trace protocols and new policies and protection equipment are but some of the focuses. It will help take a weight off the shoulders of employees coming back to the office — and will aid with a smooth transition back, without overwhelming or burdening them with new stresses.

Keeping up with high expectations

Expectations will be higher than usual, and while it’s important to take on feedback from employees, it’s also important not to set unrealistic expectations.

Before setting out a roadmap, you can find out from employees how many days they want at home, how many days they want to come to the office and get to grips with what their version of the 9-5 is. Let them know that you are listening by embracing this new era of flexibility, and share the perspective from inside the business too so they can see both sides.

Use this as an opportunity to move forward, take advantage of new opportunities, and even be confident in trying out new methods that the ‘old way’ of working wouldn’t have allowed for. Ask lots of questions. Is there a preferred method they want to adopt that can help them achieve a better work-life balance? What do they think is the most realistic balance between home and office work for them and the business?

Creating ideal employee experiences for the future of work will be a discipline predicated on constant listening and learning, implementing feedback into the decision-making process and being agile in adapting to change; three components that are critical for navigating through these stages and bouncing back the right way.

Ultimately, companies that put people and the human experience at the centre of their return to work strategies will be able to deliver better experiences and keep a competitive advantage in the future of work.

Download the Future of Work report

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Acting on employee feedback is the number one way to attract, retain and engage top talent, with leaders reporting 3x more revenue per employee and 40% lower turnover. But here’s the catch: only 19% of UK employees say their organisation listens to their opinions. Qualtrics helps brands like Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Barclays to close that experience gap, enabling them to design and improve experiences across the employee lifecycle - from recruitment through to exit.