Evolving Workforces

The Return-to-Office Checklist

Four strategies worth talking about as RTO rises on corporate agendas

November 22, 2022 10 Minute Read


Key Takeaways

  1. Articulate return-to-office (RTO) goals clearly and candidly, track progress and adjust strategies as needed.
  2. Seek employee feedback to increase participation, build trust and strengthen their “buy-in” to the office value proposition.
  3. Leverage tech to provide a seamless, fully accessible in-office experience that also feels inviting to virtual employees.
  4. Give managers resources and support to carry out RTO goals at the team level.
  5. Measure employee usage data before, during and after you implement your RTO plans to optimize space utilization and the overall workplace experience.

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Strike the Right Balance

Many corporate leaders are torn when it comes to the future of work. On one hand, they want to support hybrid work; on the other, they want predictable office show-up rates to help manage their occupancy and best utilize their space. Meanwhile, many employees want flexibility and choice in how they work and when they show up at the office. The need is for a middle ground that reconciles business goals with workforce needs.

Developing an employee-friendly RTO strategy is top-of-mind for many organizations. Some aspects of our lives—notably hospitality, travel and entertainment—have largely returned to the way things were prior to the pandemic. But the office has yet to catch up.

Inducements like free lunch and one-off perks may help occasionally, but they won’t inspire a workforce to see the value of the office and truly come back. Leaders need to roll out an effective, sustainable RTO strategy that makes the office a destination of choice and a magnetic epicenter of workplace culture and collaboration.

Inducements like free lunch and one-off perks may help occasionally, but they won’t inspire a workforce to see the value of the office and truly come back.

Planning Tomorrow’s Office, Today

Many organizations have waited to see how RTO would unfold organically as the pandemic recedes, and now is the opportune time to solidify those goals.

CBRE has distilled best practices from our global clients into four themes:

  1. Articulate clear RTO goals
  2. Use technology to enhance virtual and in-person work and experiences
  3. Offer training to make the most of hybrid work
  4. Measure office utilization and design offices to reflect how employees actually use the space.

Each theme contains a checklist of tactics that can help to welcome employees back to the office, while also giving them a voice and choice in how they return.

Many of these strategies should be implemented prior to the RTO target date, but need to be an ongoing part of creating an effective work environment.

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Articulate clear RTO goals

Company leaders are facing a major challenge as they plan for a hybrid return to the office: how to communicate their goals and timelines to employees while also motivating them to come back.

Your workforce communications should be empathetic, engaging and encouraging.

Empathize with employees

  • Gauge employee sentiment through surveys.
  • Define the purpose of the office for employees, highlighting moments that matter and addressing their concerns about returning to the office.
  • Create an RTO Advisory Network with a cross-section of employee volunteers to inform strategy, implement their ideas and ensure they feel heard.
  • Let leaders chart the course but empower managers to set day-to-day expectations with their teams.

Tell an engaging office story

  • Leverage social media and similar channels to encourage employees to share their personal RTO experiences.
  • Host in-office experiences with existing networks—like Young Professionals or DE&I groups—to connect RTO with company values.
  • Express support for flexibility across policies, tech, space and people.

Encourage people to learn how they can embrace change

  • Equip employees with the right tools and expectations to embrace experimentation, agility and change in the company’s workplace future.
  • Create networking opportunities to engage with managers and colleagues.
  • Keep an active forum for regular updates and solicit feedback, then act on the findings; employees value privacy, so add an option to make it anonymous.

Use technology to support virtual and in-person work and experiences

Standardizing technology is integral to any RTO goal. Tech should make the office feel inspiring, comfortable and accessible to everyone, regardless of location.

Your people can be more effective if tech enables anytime/anywhere productivity, simplifies and guides the office experience and facilitates dynamic occupancy management.

Enable anytime/anywhere productivity

  • Standardize technology suites, laptops, wires and conference room equipment across the organization.
  • Make all tools (cloud access, communication channels, etc.) equally accessible via laptop and mobile to enable employee productivity wherever they are.
  • Build collaboration spaces with simple, high-quality A/V solutions that provide inclusive experiences for both office and virtual participants.

Use technology to simplify the office experience

  • Remove productivity barriers via plug-n-play tech that works on all devices and doesn’t need IT to set up—this helps employees do their best work, faster.
  • Enable technology that simplifies the workplace, from booking rooms and parking to amenities, food & beverages, concierge services and more.
  • Roll out innovative new tech, such as virtual assistants, AR/VR, avatars and more. Staying ahead of the digital curve also helps attract young talent.

Facilitate dynamic occupancy management

  • Measure employee usage data through badges, monitors/sensors and other passive collection tools to optimize office design and inform portfolio decisions.
  • Be open and honest with employees about what data you’re collecting to help put them at ease; many value personal and workplace privacy more than ever.

Offer Training to Make the Most of Hybrid Work

RTO success goes beyond just having more people in the office; it helps drive participation and belief in company culture. Executive leaders should create the vision and establish company-wide goals, while managers should drive the execution and be empowered with tools to help their teams to reach those objectives. Managers also need guidance on how to support employees personally and professionally as they shift to a new way of working.

Successful RTO in a hybrid model requires leaders to clearly articulate what's been decided and where managers have flexibility. This enables managers to set norms and habits at the team level and establish companywide re-onboarding initiatives.

Clearly articulate what’s mandated at the organizational level and how managers can adapt for their teams

  • Set clear RTO goals at the organizational level and support people managers to develop action plans with their teams.
  • Establish a cross-functional Operating Committee for executing leadership’s strategy. This team can implement leadership’s plans for RTO and approach future business challenges and transitions from a holistic perspective. Ensure HR, Real Estate, Technology and other business interests are represented.
  • Be transparent about what will and won’t change, and where managers and employees have freedom to make choices.
  • Use the Management Committee to communicate key dates, messaging, timelines and related RTO resources to reduce ambiguity and support teams with greater confidence.
  • Consider a shift to the "core four" business hours where everyone should be in the office. This lets employees plan their workday to help reduce personal and work stress, and overcome the commute barrier, which often hampers RTO.

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Set norms and habits at the team level

  • Train managers and provide a toolkit for creating new rhythms and norms with their teams.
  • Build cadence, purpose and understanding around how, when and why teams should meet.
  • Work with employees to determine what accountability in a hybrid model looks like; factor in new priorities like core hours, work/life balance and RTO’s impact on daily routines.
  • Build relationships. Encourage 1:1s and develop managers’ empathy and coaching skills. This is a unique forum for managers to influence and support individuals and discover any RTO challenges.
  • Encourage managers to connect team members and colleagues. People come to the office to be around other people, so connect them to mentors, leaders and peers when they do.
  • Rethink performance management. Link new RTO behaviors to performance and rewards to engender long-term habits.
  • Encourage managers to build high-performing, agile teams:
    • Be inclusive. Is RTO being done to them, for them or with them? Shared accountability means giving the team a voice and choice in the process.
    • Be clear where employees have a choice—and where a decision has already been made or will stay as-is.
    • Be transparent, open and honest. RTO only works if trust is a two-way street.
  • Create a peer-to-peer managers forum to problem-solve and share ideas on what’s been working.

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Launch company-wide re-onboarding initiatives

  • Make re-onboarding a celebratory event. This is an investment in the long-term success of your strategy.
  • Invite all employees hired in the last two years to a Fireside Chat with the CEO and other leaders to welcome them back, answer questions and share the history, vision and mission of the company.
  • Create an onboarding buddy system: Pair a pre-pandemic hire with someone hired during the last two years; they can attend company events together and be resources for each other.
  • Incentivize people to meet at the office to build meaningful relationships and participate in career-growth initiatives.
  • Offer or encourage volunteer days for teams and new hires to provide a shared experience and sense of belonging.
  • Make transit fun with branded swag like commuter bags or travel mugs.
  • Offer "speed mentoring" for new hires and circa-2019 employees with emerging and existing leaders to encourage personal connections that foster career growth.
  • Encourage new and pre-pandemic hires to speak up in RTO forums and with advisory teams to guide strategy. This also gives employees a voice in solving their own RTO barriers.

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Measure office utilization and design offices to reflect how employees actually use the space

An organization can ensure long-term RTO success by understanding employee work habits and how they utilize space. Analyzing usage data can highlight what types of environments lead to the most productivity, while also informing future occupancy spending.

Maximizing the productivity of every square foot requires measuring employee usage and sentiment, leveraging data and using it to enhance the employee experience over time.

Measure employee usage and sentiment

  • Identify how you'll measure workspace and amenity utilization, employee work patterns and space preferences.
    Click to view CBRE’s 2022 Global Workplace and Occupancy Insights Report
  • Leverage surveys, workshops and stakeholder interviews to further understand what employees need to thrive.
  • Track productivity and usage against business goals to pinpoint the most effectively used spaces.

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Leverage data to validate and optimize your office portfolio expenditures

  • Create worker personas based on utilization data, sentiment and work patterns.
  • Use results and feedback to guide design and space planning initiatives.
  • Determine and execute on the optimal balance of “me space” vs. “we space.”
  • Outfit the office with solutions that accommodate a wide range of work styles and are adaptable to employees’ changing needs.

Use data to continually enhance the employee experience

  • Implement AI and Building Information Modeling tools to automate demand, space planning, space allocation and room reservations.
  • Continually refine space based on employee usage and sentiment; this reduces operational, financial and environmental risk.
  • Track how improvements impact space utilization to quantify the value of design and how that affects your portfolio’s Total Cost of Operations.

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