In the post-COVID era, it will be a very tricky proposition for managers to incentivize workers to return to the office, after many of them have grown accustomed to working from home. From the company standpoint, nothing is better than having everyone in the same room, even if there are umpteen products and programs available which promote collaboration. It’s also virtually impossible to build any kind of cohesive company culture when a significant portion of your workforce is working remotely.

From the standpoint of the remote worker though, things are entirely different. Now that employees have had a taste of the flexibility they yearned for most of their working lives, the majority are unwilling to give it up. And if they can’t continue enjoying that flexibility at your company, they’ll simply leave and go somewhere where they can.

A survey conducted in January by the McKinsey corporation found that among all employees who declined to return to their former jobs, the number one reason was flexibility. The survey noted that over 40% of these laborers simply shifted to another industry and declined to return to their former positions. Statistics made available by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that there are record numbers of Americans quitting their jobs, and it wouldn’t be a huge leap to infer that the reason for this is also flexibility.

Thus, it can be seen that returning to the office can be a very thorny issue indeed. But on the other hand, it simply is not possible to allow employees to do what they want, whenever they want, because no business can survive like that for very long. There must be some middle ground that will work for both employees and employers – but what would that be?

Accept the fact that flexibility is part of the model

The days with a crowded office full of cubicles and buzzing with activity are pretty much gone forever – accept this as part of the new business model. Almost 30% of employees responded that they would consider quitting if forced to return to the office on a full-time basis in the survey mentioned above. More than 50% of employees who left their jobs said they did so because they didn’t have a sound work-life balance at their previous place of employment. The fact is that without flexibility, it will soon become almost impossible to recruit the best talent available, and it’s also true that any efforts at achieving workplace diversity and inclusivity will probably be doomed.

Make the workplace fun and appealing

If you can figure out a way to make the workplace seem fun and appealing, you should be able to start some momentum in that direction, and it could spread across the majority of your workforce. But that’s the trick – how exactly do you go about that? It would be a mistake to simply provide all kinds of perks and benefits, because those won’t last.

A more lasting approach would be to create experiences for your employees that are authentic and positive. Employees need to feel valued and have a sense of belonging, and this is the kind of attitude you need to foster to get them to come back. It is known that employees who routinely have positive experiences at work are about 16 times more engaged than their counterparts, and engagement is an essential part of being attached to a company.

So how do you provide positive experiences for your returning employees? One idea is in the design of the office area itself – get rid of the cubicles and isolated areas, and replace them with movable walls and comfortable furniture. Promote the notion of collaboration and interaction rather than working in isolation at a desk or cubicle. It will also be more satisfying for your employees if they are allowed to work on small, cross-functional teams which are empowered to make their own decisions. Provide more leadership training, delegate as much as possible, and focus on outcomes rather than procedures. This kind of model works best with in-person teams, and your employees will soon see that.

Focus on organizational health

If organizational health is defined as a company’s ability to align practices with its culture for the achievement of objectives, this will be essential to the long-term viability of any company. There are a great many industries where remote work is just not an option, e.g. restaurant employees, plumbers, electricians, home health workers, etc. So it’s good to keep in mind that the in-person vs. remote worker issue is not pervasive across all industries, and you may not even have to worry about post-COVID business models. But if you do, keep in mind that your workforce will not take kindly to slaving away at the office while executives vacation in the Caribbean.

This is important because you should be striving to build a strong company culture, and that can’t happen unless employees feel they are a vital part of the organization. That’s what contributes most strongly to organizational health, and that’s why it’s so essential. The process of persuading people to come back to the office is not something that can be handled with a single master-stroke of management policy – it has to be a process that builds momentum gradually, and creates an actual desire for employees to return.

If you were to make the mistake of trying to micro-manage the hours that people work in the office, it is entirely possible that you begin to see desertions from your workforce. By building a strong company culture and a desirable business to work for, you can accomplish much more. People do not gravitate to bad companies or indifferent workplaces – when you’ve built a strong culture and organization, that should be enough to attract the best talent available, including the workforce which has been working remotely for a while.