Navigating Return-to-Office Policies in a Work-From-Home World
Few topics have been as polarizing in workplace culture as return-to-office policies. From organizations embracing a new, work-from-anywhere era to those mandating a return to five days a week in the office, every solution has its supporters and detractors. As a nonprofit CEO who has built and maintained a positive organizational culture, and as a father of three Gen Z young adults navigating the workforce, here are my two cents: Nonprofit leaders need to find a solution in the middle.
Each organization needs to identify an approach that makes the most sense for their own employees and workplace environment, but having some in-person opportunities for employees to interact and grow is essential to maintaining a positive organizational culture. At the same time, providing flexibility to employees is also important to a great culture.
I fear that many who have entered the workforce during the past few years are losing vital opportunities for mentorship and learning. They know it, too. When Gen Z employees were asked in an Axios survey what they’ll miss out on if continuing to work remotely, 74% of young people pointed to the office community while 41% said mentorship.
As a parent, this concerns me for a number of reasons. I have always hoped for my kids to have the same, if not more and better, opportunities to pursue their passions and meaningfully build their careers. There are aspects of in-person work that are simply impossible to mimic remotely. Water cooler talk may seem mundane, but those moments in the office are opportunities for social interaction, to cultivate relationships and to learn. People are understandably more open to conversation when they’re in person, and you never know what you can learn from a coworker during a brief chat.
As a society, we realized pretty quickly that in-person school is more effective than fully remote and we brought students back into the classroom as soon as it was safe to do so. Learning in the office is not very different. Having an in-person element is a key ingredient to being successful in teaching and mentoring new employees, but also building a positive community and culture.
I understand there are justified fears of implementing a mandatory return-to-office policy. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that flexibility can no longer be a privilege — it has to be the norm. When Apple implemented its return-to-office policy, more than half of its employees expressed a desire to quit. Employers are rightly nervous that implementing such policies could result in major hits to employee retention.
At the end of the day, employees are going to do their best work and feel the most motivated if they’re working where and how they want to — and feel their needs represented in company policies. A 2022 Gallup survey on remote work found significantly lower engagement, plus increased burnout and desire to quit, among employees not working in their preferred location, whether that be remote or not.
When my organization, Public Interest Registry (PIR), came to the table to establish a hybrid policy, my team took all of these factors into account, particularly employee feedback. I want our employees to enjoy working here. PIR is a nonprofit where the majority of our work is dedicated to supporting mission-driven people and organizations striving to make the world a better place. It’s in our best interest to create a workplace environment where folks want to stick around.
Contrary to the widely accepted narrative, our hybrid policy was not met with a mass exodus. In fact, when we surveyed our employees last year as part of our recognition as a Great Place to Work, 91% said they hope to work at PIR for a long time. A major part of this success is actively creating opportunities at the office that entice employees to come in, whether it promotes their learning or relationship-building.
In forming our policy, we created a staff-led team to evaluate employee priorities and needs, which were inevitably influenced by their routines established during remote work. After some thoughtful discussions and a few potential conceptions, we designated Tuesdays and Thursdays as collaboration days, when staff know others will be in the office. We work to ensure that time spent in the office feels worthwhile, and includes activities that would be more difficult to participate in remotely. We organize cross-functional meetings, learning workshops and lunches for staff to engage and interact.
We also decided on having core hours, where employees are to be in the office between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. We have the flexibility to work from home before or after the core hours. This takes the pressure off of employees juggling other responsibilities, such as child pick-up and drop-off, fighting traffic during rush hour, etc.
Not everyone needs to be in the office every day and we have many great employees who are fully remote, but when any employee comes in, it should feel productive and rewarding, and enhance our work community.
Implementing these activities, combined with the flexibility we afford our staff, has helped us maintain a remarkable rate of employee retention and engagement. In a 2022 survey, 93.6% of employees felt “engaged” and the top word they used to describe our work environment was “fun.” While we work hard to support our nonprofit mission, we can do so in a way that also supports a positive work culture.
I'm extremely proud of our effective solution to the return-to-office issue. While navigating these policies is tricky, a return to the water cooler need not result in a mass exodus. The first step? Hear folks out and actively incorporate their needs into your policy. Once you have buy-in, make the office a place where employees want to be, not only for their professional growth, but because they’re getting something out of it. Free lunch doesn’t hurt either.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Jon Nevett is the President and CEO of Public Interest Registry (PIR), the nonprofit that operates the .ORG Family of Domains -- including the flagship .ORG domain. From innovative marketing initiatives that offer .ORGs a platform to share their work, to a learning center that offers free educational videos to startup mission-driven organizations, to its own awards program: under Jon's leadership, PIR is creating a community that empowers changemakers to make the world a better place.