Creative Ways Companies are Incentivizing Employees to Return to the Office

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Some 20 percent of work in the U.S. post-pandemic will be performed remotely (compared to just five percent pre-pandemic), according to a recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Why Working from Home Will Stick.”  Over the past year, many employers discovered that their workforce is just as or more productive than when they were in office, plus saving overhead costs and eliminating commute time.

As companies roll out announcements about a gradual or hybrid model to bring employees back to the office in person, employees are pushing back. Apple is a recent example, following an announcement by company CEO Tim Cook that announced it would require employees to return to the office three days a week starting in early September. According to an internal letter obtained by The Verge, Apple employees on a Slack channel for “remote work advocates” responded to Cook:

“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” the letter says. “Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating... It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote [or] location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

While Apple is well-known for its “no remote work” policies before the pandemic, even companies like Facebook and Twitter are not expecting employees to return to in-office work, even after the pandemic ends. In order to retain talent, many companies are hesitant about enforcing a full return to work, for good reason. About one in three (34%) people working from home said they would look for a new job if forced to be in the office full time, and nearly half (49%) prefer a hybrid arrangement, according to a Robert Half poll of 1,000 U.S. workers in March.

Our Offices Are Open: How Do We Bring Our Workforce Back?

If your company culture hinges upon face-to-face, in-person communication, bringing your workforce back to a physical workplace is going to be challenging and you may risk losing valuable talent. However, companies are finding really creative ways to do so: Cash, cars, free meals, spa weekends, reduced hours, island vacations – and it’s working.

For example, Thomas Jepsen, founder of Passion Plans, a company that helps connect home buyers with architects and designers, is allowing employees to return to the office voluntarily. But he is also offering to pay up to $1,500 for a weekend getaway to a wellness spa for the employees who are working voluntarily from the office. So far three employees have booked their stays at spas.

Since April, global real estate data company CoStar has randomly awarded $10,000 each day to a vaccinated employee who returned to a physical office. Additionally, the company is awarding vacations to Barbados and flights via the company's private plane to three employees, and one grand-prize winner will receive a new Tesla. CoStar’s office occupancy shot up by 15 percent after they announced the awards. 

Related: How to Ask Company Leadership for a Higher Recruiting Budget

The pandemic put a spotlight on what happens when your employees who are parents cannot access childcare and public schools are closed. California-based tile, flooring, and countertop supply company MS International aims to help ease employees' stress around their children falling behind academically during the last year. The company announced in March that it is partnering with educational services company My Private Professor to provide free one-on-one tutoring for children of employees in grades K-12. 

Chicago-based pharmaceutical company AbbVie, through its Covid-19 Childcare Relief Fund, is offering grants of up to $1,500 to employees returning to onsite work who need help paying for child care or remote learning. Amazon, Netflix and Nvidia Corp. are paying for employee memberships to services like Care.com, where parents can find backup childcare. Care.com says it has added more than 800,000 employees as users of its service, which includes in-home backup childcare, across the U.S. since mid-March.

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Perks And Incentives Are Great, But Options Might Be Better.

There are also more cost-effective ways to encourage employees to return to the office. Employers should be communicating with employees frequently and asking what (individual) employees want to do. Sending surveys and making decisions based on majority rule is tricky. If you have 50 employees and 27 want to return to the office, and you make returning to the office mandatory, are you going to lose 23 employees? Can you set up a phased return to work model that allows for remote work as an accommodation? Can you create a hybrid model for teams to rotate in and out of the office on preferred days to maintain social distancing?

Offering options that help your employees do what’s best for them and their personal safety is the best possible return to work scenario. In an American Psychological Association survey, almost half of adults reported feeling uncomfortable about resuming in-person interactions when the pandemic ends. While incentives are great, they are no guarantee that your employees who benefit from them will stick with you long-term.

Topics: Recruiting Industry, Recruiting Strategies

Updated June 21, 2021