Home Professionalisms How Leaders Can Convince Reluctant Employees To Return To Work

How Leaders Can Convince Reluctant Employees To Return To Work


by Rick Grimaldi, author of “FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace

For a while it looked like remote work was here to stay. But with COVID cases falling and the vaccine available, some employers have realized having people in the office is better for business. Some employees are happy to come back, but others are not as willing. What’s an employer to do? Of course you could force people to come back, but you don’t want to lose good employees — and frankly it’s better for everyone if people don’t come back begrudgingly.

That’s why the best approach is to convince the reluctant returners.

We all know the old school command and control style of leadership doesn’t work any longer, and that includes the issue of determining where people work. Instead of dragging employees back against their will, it’s better to entice them with a collaborative, happy, innovative work environment they can’t resist.

In other words, if you build the right case for coming back you can pull them in your direction — no pushing required. Here are some strategies to incentivize your employees to come back to the office.

Be sure everyone understands the “why.”

Be very clear about your reasons for bringing people back to the office. If having people on-site increases productivity, share that. If profits took a nose dive once people moved to remote work, be transparent and give them the facts. When you level with them about your reasoning instead of giving a command with no explanations, people are more likely to respect those reasons and comply.

If you have changed your mind, address that.

Some companies are just now seeing the value of having people in the office. Be honest about this. Tell employees: “We didn’t realize at first that face-to-face interaction was so pivotal to our success. The past year has shown us that it really is.” They will appreciate your candor.

Make your workplace a place they want to be.

Employees don’t want to work in offices with bad cultures. But unfortunately, many workplaces were unhealthy prior to the pandemic, and workers may now fear returning to their former toxic, drama-filled, high stress work environment. It’s not too late to cultivate a culture where people want to be. Focus on building collegiate, close-knit, trusting, inclusive, and uplifting teams that inspire a sense of belonging in people. When people feel they have a “tribe” they will want to come to work. After all, camaraderie is the antidote to burnout — something many remote workers are currently suffering from.

Employees need an atmosphere of psychological safety to do their best work. Make sure your workers feel free to speak with candor, are allowed to make mistakes without blame or retaliation, and can deliver bad news without fear of your reaction. Finally, make it clear that the workplace is a bully-free zone. The best workplaces today do not allow anyone — including leaders — to dominate, demean, or belittle their workers. 

Add policies that make sense for today’s workplace. Jettison those that don’t.

The pandemic changed a lot about the way we do work. Organizations found ways to digitally transform overnight, companies shifted to remote work, and flexed to stay afloat. And in some cases, those changes and new habits have made the workday run more smoothly. Figure out which of the new practices that you adopted during the pandemic are worth maintaining — and which old practices you can let go for good. For example, if you got rid of your daily morning meetings during work from home and opted instead to meet only twice a week (and it is working well for the company), you might decide to make that change permanent.   

Talk with people one-on-one to understand their hesitancy to come back to the office.

A candid discussion with individual employees can help you dig deeper to find out why they may not want to return. Is it a childcare or eldercare issue? Is it about safety? Is it something else entirely? Their reasons may not even be what you think they are. But once you understand their reservation, you may be able to help them manage their concerns or solve the problem.

One-on-one interviews can help you get a sense of where people are coming from. You can learn who is burned out, who might be planning to leave, and who has new ideas around the future of work in the post-COVID era. It’s a great way to take peoples’ temperature and work together to find solutions to make the transition back easier on everyone.

Make a case for mentoring opportunities.

Remote workers don’t get a lot of face time with leaders who could give them valuable career insights. Further, younger remote workers are less likely to pick up strong communication and professional skills, establish career goals, and build a network that they can rely on for years to come. But mentoring opportunities are abundant in an office setting. Young workers will benefit from the incredible wisdom and experience of senior employees, and more seasoned workers can rely on millennials and Gen Zers to help them develop digital skills, learn to use social media for marketing campaigns, and adjust to an increasingly diverse and inclusive work environment.

Play up the return of trust.

Just ask your remote workers: It can be very difficult to build trust-based work relationships when people only communicate over Zoom meetings and email. Without daily face-to-face interactions, people never get to know their colleagues and build strong relationships. But spending time with colleagues at work allows for the informal exchanges that help people get to know one another and eventually build trust.

Highlight the power of in-person collaboration.

Collaboration is necessary for innovation. But chances are your employees aren’t getting a lot of chances to collaborate remotely. The best brainstorming and innovation happens in person—and anyone who wants to hustle and harness that creative energy will be eager to show up in person to do so.

Offer more flexibility around when and where people work. (Just make sure it works for both leadership and staff.)

During the past year, many employees have gotten used to being able to pick up their kids from school or take an aging parent to medical appointments. Naturally, they don’t want to give this up. The solution may be to offer a hybrid model that allows people to be in the office part time and remote part time. Or consider allowing them to be flexible with stop and start times.

Often, you can set up a system that works for both leaders and employees. Leaders can get the facetime they need to manage and ensure workers are productive, and employees get more of the work-life integration that they crave. Finally, by staggering schedules and shifts, or allowing a hybrid model, you can meet your goals while keeping people as safe as possible.

Make workplace safety a top priority.

Even though vaccinations have driven down COVID cases nationwide, employees are still concerned about safety at work. To ensure that you are complying with established safety practices, check out guidelines posted by OSHA and the CDC. A laser focus on safety not only helps companies prevent disability and discrimination claims and avoid OSHA fines, it sets them up to recruit and retain top talent.

Not only will these strategies entice people to come back the office more quickly, they will also help your organization attract top talent. When you make your business a place people want to work, you are more likely to maintain the competitive edge that leads to innovation, creativity, and success.


Rick Grimaldi is a workplace trends expert and the author of “FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace“. Day to day, Rick works with companies to help them adapt to the ever-changing business environment, achieve their workplace goals, and become better employers. Rick is an internationally recognized writer and keynote speaker.