The way we think about work and how we think about the office has changed. But after years of virtual meetings and telecommuting, we’re seeing companies all over the world reopen their offices, which sends a very clear signal that companies want employees to go back to the office. Or at least, that they want employees to have the opportunity to go back to the office.
A Gallup survey from the final quarter of 2021 showed that nine out of ten employees wanted to remain in at least a degree of remote work after the pandemic.
Perhaps because of that companies like Google, Apple, and Twitter spent the better part of 2022 trying to reopen their offices, but as we know now, it wasn’t as simple as just opening the doors and inviting employees to return.
Still, the three companies each had their own plan, which yielded different results. So, let’s look at what they did right, and what they did wrong, and what we can learn from this.
While most surveys show that employees want to keep working from home, at least to a certain degree, the numbers also show that employees do want to go back to the office – at least to an extent. In the Gallup survey we mentioned earlier 54% said that they would specifically prefer hybrid work.
This shows that the office is still very much needed, it is just needed in a different way than what it used to be, so when you plan to go back to the office, you need to reimagine the way your office will be used.
A lot has been written about the role of the office after going hybrid and after COVID-19. What most articles conclude is that the office needs to focus on social aspects and collaboration. Instead of offering rows upon rows of desks, modern workplaces need to offer a flexible environment where people socialize and collaborate.
While this approach sounds good, it is also assuming that each one of your employees has the space in their private homes to create a dedicated workspace that lets them carry out focused work.
That is not always the case, however.
What’s important, when you start to plan your return to the office, is to find out what your employees need from the office, as this will most likely differ depending on the demographic of your organization.
When you have elected to reopen your offices, there are different ways to go about it. Of course, you can choose to have everyone go back to the office every day from nine to five, but if you have decided on a hybrid work model, there are choices to be made.
You can choose to fully open your offices for some employees while others remain fully remote, you can open your offices for everyone while also allowing people to work fully remote if they prefer, or you can have a fixed policy where employees are expected to be in the office a certain number of days, and work from home the rest of the time.
On April 4, 2022, Google planned to have employees in the San Francisco Bay Area return to the office in a hybrid format.
This was announced in the early months of 2022 in a company-wide email, which stated that due to "advances in prevention and treatment, the steady decline in cases we continue to see and the improved safety measures we have implemented [Google] can officially begin the transition to the hybrid workweek."
At the time, Sundar Pichai, who is the CEO of Google, highlighted the flexibility of the hybrid work format as their reason for transitioning to hybrid instead of fully remote.
Their plan was to have some employees continue to work remote full-time, although they expected most employees to come into the office about three days each week.
Having both fully remote and hybrid employees will pose some challenges, especially when it comes to opportunity isolation which the company will need to address.
But how did these plans turn out?
Google experienced a fair amount of backlash over their plans to return to the office even before their roll out plans were made official. In a survey by Blind 27% of Google employees said they planned to apply for permanent remote work, while 7% had already applied for an exemption. And at the same time 34% said they were considering looking for another job because of the return-to-office strategy.
The main reason for this backlash seemed to be what the employees called an unfair and arbitrary distribution of remote work privileges.
While differences in remote work patterns are quite common in big companies, workers from Google told Insider of cases where employees were barred from remote work, even though their managers worked off site.
Following this experience Google has held on to a more liberal hybrid policy, and most recently Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, has revealed plans to reduce office size and implement a desk sharing policy, as a way to both reduce spend and improve the overall office experience.
In a time before the Elon Musk takeover, former Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal, tweeted that Twitter employees would go back to the office on the 15th of March 2022. Or rather, that they had the option to do so.
In the tweet he specified that it was a choice, writing “Wherever you feel most productive and creative is where you will work and that includes working from home full-time forever.”
With that approach, Twitter elected a fully flexible return to the office 100% driven by what employees wanted, and with the right tools for scheduling and collaboration, that might have ended up paying off in the long run.
But as we know the plans were changed with the takeover of Twitter. In a memo headlined “Remote work is no longer acceptable” Musk detailed that anyone who wished to work remote could do so if they also spent 40 hours per week in the office.
Apple is another big company that publicly announced their intention to have employees go back to the office in 2022, and they did so along with a roll out plan for making it happen. That plan was set to start on April 11, 2022.
According to Bloomberg, Apple’s plan was to gradually increase the number of days employees spend in the office and have everyone in the office three times a week by the end of May 2022.
Unlike Google and Twitter, however, Apple had decided on a fixed schedule for work in the office – Mondays, Tuesdays. and Thursdays.
An approach that may seem to remove the need for dedicated scheduling tools at the cost of reduced flexibility, but that is not the entire story. While many focus on the desk booking capacities of such tools, there’s also the question of being able to find out where people are seated.
Just like Google, however, Apple saw pushback from their employees, with more than 80 employees banding together to write a formal letter to Tim Cook and the rest of Apple’s executive leadership, to have them rethink their plans on a forced return to the office. 
As all three tech companies learned over the course of 2022, getting employees back to the office is not as easy as sending out a company email. In fact both surveys and recent events have shown that employees who are forced back to the office are likely to quit.
To avoid that, we have collected a short list of tips which will help turn your return to the office into a success.
The best way to find out how you can get your employees back in the office is to ask. While general surveys spanning hundreds of companies are good on a societal level, no one can say more about what your employees want, than your employees.
Questions you could ask your employees are “what tools do you need to work in the office?” or “How often would you prefer to work from home?” However, it is important that you do not add questions you don’t intend to back up with action.
For instance, if you ask your employees “would you prefer to keep working from home full time” that needs to be an option too.
When you have found out which work model will suit your company and your employees, it’s time to implement it, but you shouldn’t expect to make the switch overnight.
Coming up with a rollout plan and a gradual return will let your employees get used to the change from 100% remote work (or a 100% in office job) to the hybrid setup you have chosen.
Making hybrid work function needs to be a collaborative effort between employer and employee, and because of that, you need to explain why you want your employees to return to the office.
If your reason for wanting to go back to the office is that you see employees as more than the value of completing their tasks, you need to tell them. If it’s because you value that they socialize, build relationships, and develop closer bonds, because it adds a lot of value to your workplace, they need to know.
They may not understand your reasoning and they may come up with a counter proposal to your suggested plan, but you need to have your employees on board to make the hybrid work model succeed.
While you are working on your rollout plan, it’s also a good idea to find out how you can make your facilities support your new way of working.
While social distancing isn’t as central as it was over the winter, it is still of consequence, and your office space needs to supply a greater distance between employees than earlier. This applies to both workstations, meeting rooms, break areas etc.
Even though virtual meetings have become our ‘new normal’ during quarantine, physical meetings will gradually be introduced to our everyday working life again once offices re-open. Meetings with external participants will also gradually resume, requiring guidelines for how to welcome visitors to the office.
Even if you don’t have any measures related to COVID-19 having both internal and external participants at hybrid meetings requires more forethought than when everyone was working from the office.
Making employees feel comfortable and safe upon their return to the office is critical when you are going back to the office, but what is equally critical is making scheduling simple.
A desk booking tool such as Workspace allows employees to easily schedule where they are working from on what days, allowing for a more smooth and flexible process.
The alternative is to have fixed days on which employees are coming to the office, which is both less flexible, and it also removes most of the financial benefits of going hybrid.
Changing to a hybrid way of working isn’t a short-term challenge. It’s a long-term engagement to ensure a healthy, safe, and productive work culture that boosts employee well-being and productivity.
Making the transition back to in-office work as smoothly as possible requires both general management, human resources, and facility management to collaborate closely.