Want Employees Back in the Office? Embrace Flexibility

A well-thought-out flexible work policy can enable employees to produce their best work and satisfy their need for work-life balance.

Written by Henry Nothhaft Jr.
Published on Dec. 01, 2023
Want Employees Back in the Office? Embrace Flexibility
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Brand Studio Logo

A whopping 76 percent of employees stand ready to quit  their jobs if their companies mandate a full-time return to the office, according to a recent report by Greenhouse

That’s not just a data point. It’s an SOS signal. Companies that don’t adapt are not just losing talent; they’re choosing to let talent go. Employee demands for flexibility are no longer fringe benefits; they’re competitive necessities.

5 Ways to Build a Resilient Work Culture

  1. Enact a structured hybrid work model and thoughtful flexible work policy.
  2. Involve employees in decision making.
  3. Use AI to design surveys and crunch survey data.
  4. Encourage human-AI collaboration.
  5. Design your work environment for your best employees.

Another layer to consider is the opportunity cost of not embracing flexibility. Companies are losing current employees and they’re also becoming less attractive to future hires. Fifty-nine percent of job seekers would be less likely to apply to a job that didn’t offer remote or hybrid options, according to a 2022 Owl Labs survey.

In an era where the quality of human capital determines an organization’s ability to innovate, execute and compete, can companies really afford to risk alienating in-demand talent? They may find themselves in a talent vacuum, bereft of the skills and enthusiasm that drive innovation.

Flexibility doesn’t mean sacrificing organizational structure or productivity. Quite the contrary; multiple studies have shown that employees often perform better when given some flexibility, be it in terms of work hours or location. The key is to have a structured hybrid model in place with clear expectations and guidelines. A well-thought-out flexible work policy can enable employees to produce their best work while also satisfying their needs for work-life balance.

another ideaWant People to Return to the Office? Focus on Relationships.


Start By Listening

The path forward starts with listening, but not just the kind of listening that nods and files away complaints. Many CEOs who issued unilateral return-to-office mandates now regret that they did not consult with employees before making the decision.

They’re also realizing that employees are reservoirs of untapped intelligence. Involving them in the decision-making process is a critical business strategy that enriches the quality of organizational decisions.  

Listening to employees means advocating for a more sophisticated form of dialogue and converting these conversations into actionable data. Yes, town halls and focus groups can nurture community and offer qualitative insights. But those forums are not substitutes for rigorous, data-driven decision-making. Anecdotes and instincts are insufficient navigational tools when steering a modern enterprise. You need a robust data set that serves as both map and compass.

This is where the new generation of surveys comes into play. While we may feel surveyed out, that’s often because traditional surveys weren’t designed to yield actionable insights. They asked the wrong questions in the wrong ways. Advances in artificial intelligence and analytics enable us to construct surveys that dig deeper, allowing for nuanced questions and long-form unstructured knowledge capture, which can access invaluable enterprise data that lies hidden within the workforce.

With this approach, AI enables us to synthesize this new frontier data to uncover patterns, discern trends and chart a viable path forward. This is about understanding employee perspectives, why they have them, and aligning their perspectives with what the business actually needs. When there’s a gap, the data highlights it and provides a basis for an informed dialogue to bridge it.

In essence, the data provides a language through which both employer and employees can articulate their needs and aspirations, rendering decision-making informed and fundamentally more collaborative.


Try a Little AI

I recently had the pleasure of reading an insightful article on the role of AI in work by Johannes Sundlo in his FullStackHR newsletter. One particular quote truly resonated with me: “I believe the ideal future integrates the complementary strengths of humans and AI. Humans supply wisdom, values and creativity. AI provides information and analysis. We must nurture human judgment while appropriately scoping AI's role to thrive.”

AI becomes the tool that uncovers hidden problems, identifies elusive root causes and presents indispensable critical insights.

Humans have an extraordinary array of qualities that distinctly set us apart from machines. Our contributions include contextual knowledge, the spark of creativity, the vast reservoir of real-world experiences and the power of subjective judgment. Collectively, these insights form a treasure trove, an invaluable dataset awaiting the application of AI. By harnessing this collective wisdom, AI becomes the tool that uncovers hidden problems, identifies elusive root causes and presents indispensable critical insights. These, in turn, empower its human partners to craft strong solutions with remarkable efficiency.

In this context, the collaboration between humans and AI becomes invaluable. Humans provide knowledge and ingenuity, while AI offers clarity by finding the signal in the noise. This partnership yields insights and resolutions that are likely to evade both AI and trained human analysts. And the possibilities for capturing employee knowledge and perspectives and distilling them into insights that drive organizational improvement and employee experience are nearly limitless.

another perspectiveThe Problem With Remote Work Is Not What You Think It Is


Consider Employee and Employer Needs

In this expert’s experience, the revelations from this data-driven approach might catch leadership off guard. (Hint: you won’t find a virtual complaint box overstuffed with whiny and entitled missives about PTO and perks.) Employees are adults and are demanding to be treated as such. They crave responsibility, seek purpose and demand a reasonable amount of autonomy. What many want is not less work, but a new paradigm of work that values quality over quantity, outcomes over hours logged.

Design your work environment for the performers, the go-getters, the ones who drive your business forward.

Yes, you heard it right: Your employees want to be assessed based on the quality of their work, not the number of hours they warm a seat in the office.

Don’t design your policies to cater to the lowest common denominator. In any workforce, a small segment underperforms or shirks responsibilities. These are outliers, not the rule. If your policy framework seeks to clamp down on this minority, you risk stifling the creativity, freedom and productivity of your majority. Address the underperformers directly and manage them as exceptions rather than allowing them to dictate the work experience for everyone else. In other words, design your work environment for the performers, the go-getters, the ones who drive your business forward.

When the analytics show a misalignment between what employees desire and what the company needs, it provides an invaluable opportunity for transparent, data-backed dialogues. Even if you implement policies that aren’t universally popular, when they are data-informed and accompanied by clear, empathetic communication, you build trust rather than sow resentment.

Business leaders are sitting on a goldmine of collective wisdom. Tap into this wisdom. Engage teams in executing and shaping strategies. Do this right, and we’re not just reopening offices — we’re laying the foundation for a more engaged, innovative and resilient corporate culture.

This isn’t just about returning to the office. This is about the future of your organization and the next generation of work culture. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

Hiring Now
Built In
Consumer Web • HR Tech