How to get workers back to the office
Could relaxing dress codes be the solution? Or is it just another gimmick?
Why You Should Care
Employers are struggling to get workers back in the office, even a few days a week.
Could relaxing dress codes be the answer?
Find out the views of HR experts!
Traditionally office-based companies are grappling with which working model to adopt for the long-term.
Do organizations want to call all their employees back to the office five days a week? Or do they want to go remote-first and have everyone work remotely? Or is there a happy medium in between the two?
That middle ground is known as hybrid work, and it seems to be the dominant model employers are embracing. However, many are struggling to actually persuade their workers to come into the office, even if they are mandating a return.
In fact, research by infinitSpace found that three in five UK businesses are struggling to get employees back to the office. The situation is similar throughout Europe and across the pond in the US.
This is concerning for organizations not only because they are spending money on offices that are half full, but it means workers may be missing out on the benefits of the office: in-person connection. The positives of in-person experiences for employees, teams, and business bottom lines are even acknowledged by remote-first companies like Dropbox.
In the words of psychologist Adam Grant:
Hey leaders: If people aren't coming to the office, look in the mirror.
They're not avoiding work. They’re avoiding toxic cultures, micromanagers, constant interruptions, and countless hours wasted commuting.
If you want people to show up more often, make it worth the trip.
— Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) August 8, 2022
This begs the question what can companies do to make the commute worthwhile?
Are free food and free drinks sufficient? What other additional benefits could companies introduce? Could dog-friendly workplaces or removing strict dress codes help?
UNLEASH spoke to HR experts to find out their views, and personal experiences, on making hybrid work successful.
The role of free food and dog-friendly workplaces
“Free food has always been a great incentive that encourages employees to return to the office”, LLC.services’ HR analyst Adrienne Couch shares with UNLEASH.
She adds that initiatives like free food can also “increase job satisfaction”, this is because these actions “show that a company cares for its employees”; an added bonus is it saves employees money.
10Eighty co-founder and director Liz Sebag-Montefiore shares that it is crucial that employers provide a range of food – including healthy snacks.
She notes that while it may seem like covering commuting costs would be a more effective idea, it can start to get untenably expensive for employers to offer it to everyone, therefore, in her view “vouchers for coffee or smoothies are better”.
Another option that Sebag-Montefiore mentions is dog-friendly workplaces. Recent research by Flexa Careers found that job seekers are becoming increasingly keen to work in workplaces where dogs are not just allowed, but encouraged.
This makes sense given that there was a dramatic surge in lockdown pets, and employees may not want to shed out significant funds for doggy daycare for when they go into the office.
Office space provider Making Moves shares some different ideas implemented by its clients. These include best-in-class office gyms, game rooms, sleep pods, competitive team events like a hackathon, and premium coffee on tap.
Rethink your dress code
While these benefits may work for some businesses, they may not work for others. Is there anything else that employers could try to entice workers back in?
Could relaxing dress codes and making the office less formal be a solution? Particularly since it costs employers nothing, and it can save employees money as they don’t have to fork out for a second wardrobe of more formal clothes.
Research by YouGov shared exclusively with UNLEASH shows that Brits now see shorts (for both women and men) as appropriate office wear. Short skirts and t-shirts are also allowed, and it is becoming more acceptable for men to ditch their tie when coming to work.
I-COM’s head of digital marketing Mike Eccles shares with UNLEASH that business shouldn’t overlook “the widespread benefits of a relaxed dress code – how it can positive affect staff wellbeing, improve productivity, and in turn, drive their bottom line”.
Given in-person work is all about creativity and collaboration, “to refuse employees the right to feel comfortable and be themselves [by implementing a dress code] is counterintuitive”, according to Eccles.
“Strict dress codes with no rhyme or reason behind them actively discourages individuality, [and] can lower staff morale”, plus they can lead to employees feeling like they are being treated like children, not adults.
Eccles adds: “Businesses need to trust their employees and give them the autonomy and freedom to wear what makes them feel best at work.”
Making Moves London CEO and founder Tobi Crosbie shares his business’s personal experience. “We try to promote a ‘be your authentic self’ culture here via a relaxed dress code, bridging the gap between home and work”.
Revolent’s global president Nabila Salem agrees that relaxing a dress code could “make the transition between their office and homeworking days easier” – they can wear the same clothes for both. This means they are more focused on their tasks, rather than preoccupied and anxious about whether they are stressed smartly enough.
“A more relaxed code can also be a quiet means of fostering better inclusion in the workplace,” according to Salem. For instance, “social pressures to meet certain imagined aesthetic standards disproportionately affects women, and an organization that works to shift…expectations is more likely to support women in feeling comfortable at work”.
CircleIt’s founder and CEO Art Shaikh says: “Our dress code is ‘wear what makes you comfortable’, because we’re more concerned with the work output than we are with what you are wearing”.
Shaikh also discusses the inclusion side of relaxing dress codes. “Dress codes are outdated, and in some cases, reinforce biases against BIPOC and women”.
It’s all about culture
“Of course, we cannot…just rely on a relaxed dress code” to get employees back into the office, comments I-COM’s Eccles.
“It should be one of many benefits and perks that add to positive culture” – things like competitive paid time off, flexibility on when and where people work, as well as good wages and pension contributions.
Salem agrees that de-formalizing office wear is “unlikely to be the primary motivator for staff returning to the office”.
Dr. Wayne Pernell, president at Dynamic Leader, goes one step further. He states: “Focusing on relaxed dress codes is almost like the old Industrial Organizational Psychology notion of tying a ribbon to a vent to show employees that air is flowing.
“It’s true that doing small things like that does influence employee behavior, but it misses something much bigger: Organizational Culture. It’s a mistake for leadership to believe that one thing or another thing can make a difference.”
Instead, Dr Pernell recommends that businesses who want to make hybrid work successful should really lean into their principles, as well as accept that many employees really value flexible working models.
Now may be time for compromise. If an organization wants workers in the office, then could they offer employees different kinds of flexibility in return – whether that is around working hours, or just moving to a four-day week.
Ultimately, as per usual, there is no easy one-size-fits-all solution.
The answer is to talk to your employees, find out why they aren’t keen to the offer, and come up with creative solutions that work for your business. That may be relaxing your dress code, offering free food or allowing pets in the office, or it could be something else you hadn’t previously thought of.
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Allie is an experienced business journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.