Following more than a year of shutdowns and a complete upheaval of all normalcy, people are eager to resume the ease of their previous routines: dinner with friends, workout classes, shopping in stores and much more.

One aspect, however, that feels ambiguous for many is the return to the workplace. Both employers and employees have uncertainties with how to move forward.

Now, there exists a seemingly endless number of decisions that companies must make which will impact their people, their business and the real estate that supports them. This article is the first in a five-part series which will help occupiers navigate the return-to-office (RTO), avoid costly risks and effectively manage their portfolios while using data to test and pivot.

Defining the Path Forward

Forging ahead with an RTO strategy is a big dance. Much like a choreography, RTO plans have a sequence of pre-determined, carefully timed steps, but offer opportunity for creativity, ingenuity and improvement.

As companies consider what their approach to work will be as the world re-opens, there is too often a limited viewpoint on what the options are. The current way of thinking for many falls under one of the four below categories:

  1. Office First: Companies that require their employees to come into the office most of the time, but they build in one or two days a month when employees are allowed to work remote.
  2. Hybrid (Partial Autonomy): Companies that place guardrails on which employees can work virtually and when. It may involve allowing employees to schedule work from home days. It may also involve allowing a sizable percentage of the workforce (10%-25%) to work virtually most of the time.
  3. Hybrid (Full Autonomy): Companies that allows employees to choose when they’d like to work from an office and when they’d like to work virtually.
  4. Virtual First: A virtual-first model involves most employees working virtually by default – either from their homes or anywhere. Virtual teams are often geographically distributed.

These strategies deal in black and white thinking – only including two factors: remote or in-person. By staying within these narratives, companies will miss out on an evolution of work that rises to the new normal of post-pandemic life.

A New Approach

A critical factor missing from those four tactics is the idea of ‘flex.’ Rather than just two options, at-home or in-person, a new way of approaching RTO should include all three. This different model can help accelerate business drivers, provide more choice for employees and create a more effective workplace strategy.

To integrate this new approach, companies can build out formulas based on optionality. “People want to develop long-term strategies to guide their businesses. Right now, they should develop adaptable plans. The focus should be on the analytics of how the plan is unfolding.  Use a sense and respond approach to decision making and adapt if the plan doesn’t align employee preferences to company goals,” according to Colliers’ Head of Client Experience, Occupier Services, Chris Zlocki.

The Risks of Getting it Wrong

It’s crucial that companies adopt the right approach, because taking a misstep in the RTO dance can be costly for their talent retention and acquisition. If an employer chooses to move forward with a strategy that withdraws the autonomy, flexibility and choice afforded over the last year, employees will look elsewhere for a workplace that better aligns with their needs.

And workers today are taking lead. Bret Swango, Colliers’ Head of Workforce Analytics, Occupier Services explains, “This is the greatest supply-side risk facing knowledge worker centric organizations in our lifetime.”

Attracting non-linear talent – engineers, cloud architects, data security experts, etc., is growing exceedingly competitive. These highly skilled workers focus on leveraging technology and automation to design and build scalable solutions for the “new world” and is a talent pool facing an incredible amount of choice in the marketplace. Providing an RTO that appeals to this group can be critical to a company’s future success.

Much like a dance, the RTO strategy should ensure everyone on stage is in sync, moving in tandem and united in the steps forward. Because it requires a multi-faceted approach to get it right, this series of articles will be tackling opportunities to inform RTO and present longer-term insights on shifts in work, place and space.

Have questions? You can get in touch with Chris Zlocki or Bret Swango.