Making Return to Office (RTO) work

12 Feb, 2024
Making Return to Office (RTO) work
AUT Business School Professor, Helena Cooper Thomas

February is one of the busiest times of the year for managers involved in hiring new staff, so now is a good time for companies to reflect on the employee benefits they offer and to ask themselves: what kind of offerings attract and retain talent?

In an interview with HRD Magazine, AUT Business School Professor Helena Cooper Thomas discusses how hybrid working – the ability or leeway to be able to work from home and the office – has become a standard expectation of employees. While this new norm offers welcome flexibility to employees, it can be challenging for employers to navigate their return to office (RTO) policies. How, then, can organisations find the right balance?

Based on research conducted with AUT colleagues, and echoing other research, Professor Cooper Thomas contends that finding the balance involves collaboration and communication between employees and employers. Those inputs and outcomes may vary from company to company; what is certain, however, is that, when it comes to talent attraction and retention, flexibility is king.

Flexibility impacts talent retention, too

Flexibility not only counts for talent attraction but also retention, says Professor Cooper Thomas.

“If you offer employees flexibility so that employees find it easy to balance other responsibilities, they're not going to necessarily be looking for another job because they know not all organisations provide that,” she says.

Provide clear reasons for RTO

Organisations expecting employees to work in the office should have valid reasons for doing so and provide adequate spaces for the various ways people might want to work when in the office for, ranging from quiet spaces for individual deep thinking through to collaborative spaces for teamwork.

“I think it's important for employees to understand the rationale in the organisation as to why they have to be in the office. For example, if an employer needs people in the office for data security purposes or to collaborate, they should communicate those reasons. If employees think it’s just a case of ‘If you don't see me, you don't believe I'm working’ that's pretty demotivating,” says Professor Cooper Thomas.

Creating more attractive physical spaces

Making the physical space more attractive is a constructive way of motivating people to work at the office. Professor Cooper Thomas points to research on biophilic work design, which considers how to bring nature into the workplace.

“An increased amount of nature has been found to reduce stress levels. I don't think everyone should install a plant wall and feel they’ve ticked a box while letting the plants die slowly. That's not the solution. But bringing a bit of nature into the workplace to make it more pleasant can be a good idea.”

At their core, says Professor Cooper Thomas, RTO policies can be an adjustment for many organisations; finding the so-called sweet spot requires employers and employees to be flexible and transparent.

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