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As the Omicron variant spike from early 2022 began to subside, many companies have started to transition employees back to the office full-time. There’s only one problem: most employees aren’t as eager to return. While 50 percent of business leaders say their company requires or plans to require a full-time return to the office, a meager 3 percent of white collar workers actually want to go to the office five days a week. 

In another survey from the Limeade Institute, all 4,553 remote workers surveyed said they were anxious about returning to the workplace. The top three sources of anxiety were COVID-19 exposure (77%), inflexible work schedules (71%) and a return to commuting (68%). Results from a survey of Atlanta’s workforce conducted by Georgia Commute Options echo these employee worries, with the stress and cost of commuting reported as the top concerns for an in-office return.

Improving employee sentiment around returning to the office starts with understanding and addressing these concerns. Whether you’re establishing a hybrid work approach or hoping to encourage in-person work five days a week, here are some suggestions for how to handle each of these three concerns. 

1. Improve COVID-19 Safety

While public health is improving, COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared. Many employees are still concerned about catching or transmitting the virus. In fact, a report from benefitnews.com found that 70 percent of employees did not consider their workplace safe from COVID-19. For these workers, any lack in workplace health measures will likely deepen the desire to stay home. 

To ease their concerns, consider enhancing ventilation in your office space and improving policies around masking, social distancing and sanitation. The CDC’s guidance for workplaces and businesses has more suggestions for making your office safer.

In addition to physical health, it’s important to consider the mental health impacts of the pandemic. One survey found that 50-55 percent of respondents said the pandemic took a toll on their mental health. Asking people back into the office without accounting for mental health could be detrimental. Instead, acknowledge the challenges employees may be facing, and support them by providing employee assistance programs and other mental health resources. 

2. Retain Flexibility in Employees’ Schedules

For many employees, the transition to remote work introduced an unprecedented level of flexibility. People had more freedom to choose when and where to work. As a result, overall productivity increased or stayed the same for 81% of workers, according to a Limeade survey.

Transitioning employees into the workplace may suggest unwanted tradeoffs like lost productivity. Fortunately, employees don’t always have to sacrifice flexibility when returning to the office. 

Hybrid work—where employees spend part of the week at home and part in the office—is one common approach. You can also allow for flexible hours, provide new perks like extra PTO or encourage employees to step away from their desk during the day as needed. 

The last few years have proven that allowing employees the flexibility to choose their work hours and location often produces positive results. To help you figure out a return-to-work strategy that allows for this flexibility, refer to our guide on 4 ways to reshape when work happens.  

3. Reduce Commute Stress

Cutting out the commute during the pandemic gave employees more energy to do their jobs well and more time for themselves and their families. Resuming the commute is a hard sell by comparison. 

However, the transition back into the workplace is ripe with opportunity for employers to make commutes more pleasant. Transit subsidies can offset the financial burden, while commute plans can help employees find the route that’s quickest and involves the least stress. 

Hybrid scheduling and other flexible work practices also come into play here. Hybrid work means employees can still have a few commute-free days each week, while flexible scheduling lets people avoid periods of particularly rough traffic. Employers who are introducing these types of schedules should also consider rightsizing existing commuter benefit policies to accommodate employees who may now only travel into the workplace a couple days each week.

You can find in-depth guidance on improving employees’ commutes in GCO’s resource, 7 ways to reshape how employees get to work

Create a Return-to-Office Plan Employees Will Like

There are a lot of benefits to getting employees in the office—and they can be enjoyed without eliminating the benefits of remote work. Addressing employees’ concerns about COVID-19, scheduling and commuting will help them overcome their reluctance to return to the workplace. 

Georgia Commute Options can help you address these concerns. Contact GCO to access free telework and flexwork consulting and commuting support, among other return-to-office resources, designed specifically for employers in the Atlanta region. 

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