After two years of working from home – and seeing return-to-office plans derailed by new Covid-19 strains – a growing number of companies are eager to get employees back to the office.

According to new research from Microsoft, which surveyed 31,102 employees worldwide between January and February, about 50% of leaders say their companies already require or plan to require employees to return to work full-time within the next year. .

However, this number is in stark contrast to what employees really want: flexibility. In the same report, 52% of employees said they are thinking of moving to a full-time remote or hybrid job by 2022.

“Many business leaders have told me that they don’t believe in hybrid work, that it has no place in their culture,” Elise Freedman, a workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry, who helps companies coordinate their return-to-office plans , CNBC tells Make It.

She continues, “But the companies that push for a full return to the office can face serious consequences if they don’t give employees the flexibility and environment they’re asking for… they’ll just leave.”

How can companies deal with this tension and create a return-to-office plan that works for all employees? Here’s what business leaders need to know to navigate this new chapter of work:

Employees don’t understand when – or why – they should go to the office

There’s a popular tweet that’s been trending for weeks that mocks companies’ vague statements about the importance of offices in building a strong culture:

Such criticisms are justified, Freedman points out, because most companies have not developed clear, detailed workplace strategies that explain when employees should be in the office and why.

Microsoft’s research backs up these claims: 38% of hybrid workers say knowing when and why to come to the office has been their biggest challenge in navigating their jobs in recent months, as only 28% of leaders have determined why and when they have to go to the office in their plans.

“Companies need to think about what exactly they want to achieve by bringing people back, why, and be transparent with their employees,” Freedman says. “That starts with answering ‘What is the role of the office and how do we get our most effective work done?'”

When leaders point to the benefits of personal work for culture and collaboration, the office should be conducive to it, rather than “a cubic farm where everyone is on the phone and no one is talking,” she adds.

Design changes such as larger meeting rooms, open floor plans and outdoor spaces can have a positive effect.

Freedman also encourages companies to use collaboration tools like Google Docs or Slack, where employees can view and talk about people’s office schedules in real time. “If you show up and there’s no one on your team, what’s the point of going in?” she says.

Managers feel trapped between leadership and employee expectations

The success (and failure) of a company’s return-to-office plan lies with its managers, who struggle to convince C-suite leaders to design their work approach based on the needs of the employees.

Future Forum, Slack’s research consortium, interviewed nearly 11,000 knowledge workers in the United States, France and other countries in November and found that 42% of executives work in the office 3-4 days a week, compared to 30% of non-executives. . In addition, 44% of remote executives said they prefer to work in the office every day, while only 17% of employees said the same.

Managers struggle to balance these conflicting desires: More than half of managers believe leadership is out of touch with employees, but 74% say they don’t have the influence or resources to make changes for their employees, according to the report from Microsoft.

“They’re the point where all this tension” [about RTO] comes to a head,” explains Jared Spataro, CVP Modern Work at Microsoft. employees.”

Spataro recommends leadership require managers to have one-on-one conversations with employees to design a “team agreement” that outlines the needs of the company, the needs of the team, and the needs of the individual employee to determine how they can better coordinate with each other.

“It’s about bringing people back to a shared headspace of what work will look like in the coming months, and being transparent about what employees versus leadership expect so there are no surprises,” he adds.

A tight labor market means workers are still in the driver’s seat and not afraid to quit if their needs aren’t met. According to the latest JOLTS report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an additional 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in January.

“There is a lot at stake for leaders with plans to return to the office,” Spataro said. “I always say to business leaders, ‘You may be judging employees when they return to work, but mark my words, they’re judging you just as well — so think carefully, listen carefully, and try to dig in with them on their needs. .'”

Checking out:

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The demand for flexible work ‘will only increase in the coming years’ as workers feel empowered

How, according to their therapists, people have changed the way they think about work

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