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Bagpipes and barbecues: incentives abound to lure staff back to the office

Flexible working

Bagpipes and barbecues: incentives abound to lure staff back to the office

As lockdowns ease, the fine line between enticement and coercion will become a divisive issue in global workplaces

If you enjoy the skirl of the bagpipes, Steelcase’s global headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is calling you back.

The employee pipe band, a staff blues group and barbecues are part of the entertainment laid on by the US furniture maker in recent weeks to encourage its 1,400 staff to return to the office after more than a year of working mainly remotely.

As an employer and a supplier of office equipment, Steelcase has an obvious dual interest in persuading employees that some of their best work can be done in person, rather than remotely. Like most employers, it does not expect staff to attend the office five days a week.

The data show, however, that a gap has opened between what employers hope for as lockdowns ease and what employees want. Incentives, soft and hard, could play a part in bridging it. Faced with a possible overhang of expensive, city-centre property, landlords and employers are asking themselves, ‘How do we magnetise the office?’ But the line between enticement and coercion is a fine one.

The latest survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics shows 36 per cent of those currently homeworking think they will spend most or all of their time working remotely in future, whereas nearly 40 per cent of businesses expect 75 per cent of their workforce to return to the workplace.

“Leaders live in one reality of how they grew up, how they learnt to work, their reality of being a senior leader, and folks on the front line live a very different reality,” says Debbie Lovich of Boston Consulting Group. She was speaking at the launch on Tuesday of a new poll of 10,000 “knowledge workers” in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK for Future Forum, a consortium launched last year by Slack, the workplace app provider.

The survey shows 24 per cent of white-collar workers would now want to work only in the office (or at a client) and just 7 per cent want a preset schedule. Flexibility is second only to pay as the most important factor in job satisfaction and working from home “is no longer a perk”. As a result, Lovich says, “we need to recognise the move back [to the office] emotionally may be harder for many”.

At the moment, incentives to return to the workplace, even for only a few days a week, fall into five broad categories.

Hygiene

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg established in the 1960s that there were some basic requirements to ensure workers turn up, including adequate pay. His “hygiene factors” have taken on literal reality in the pandemic, as companies race to make sure workplaces are sanitary and safe. “What we can’t do is open up our offices, invite our employees back and then provide a suboptimal experience,” says Ken Raisbeck, head of occupier advisory for CBRE, a real estate services company.

Structure

Lockdown has accelerated many businesses’ plans to upgrade their offices away from traditional rows of desks to a more friendly design.

Businesses are working on four priorities: comfortable social spaces where colleagues can meet to collaborate in person; private enclaves for quiet work or one-to-one video calls; better technology to allow for discussion with remote-working colleagues or clients; and more flexible schedules, allowing “time-shifting” so staff can avoid crowded commutes or accommodate personal commitments.

Axel Hefer, chief executive of Trivago, the online travel booking site, says he detects “massive demand” from his young staff to return to the group’s offices in Düsseldorf, Germany, but he is approaching the challenge in the same way as a software developer would. “Stay open-minded and test different things. Try out new things and collect feedback,” he told a recent FT Future of Work conference.

Connection

Many employers have started reminding staff of the importance of in-person creativity and collaboration.

“I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said in a memo earlier this month that has reportedly met resistance from staff, who want greater flexibility.

Paradoxically, spontaneous gatherings also require some careful organisation.

As well as its bands and barbecues, Steelcase has set up informal face-to-face conversations at headquarters with its senior executive team to pull other staff members in. It has learnt from mistakes made when the first US lockdowns ended last year and the company failed to set expectations and communicate effectively what staff would experience on their return to the office.

“It isn’t only you and me breaking the habit [of remote working], everybody needs to break it at the same time, otherwise it defeats the purpose,” says Hefer.

Carrots

Tangible perks on offer include free coffee and food. Compass, which provides corporate catering, says three large investment banks are now offering complimentary food to London office staff. Where they have in-office gyms or swimming pools, companies are cautiously reopening them.

Raisbeck of CBRE says landlords, employers, local businesses and local authorities are also starting to organise “placemaking”, Covid-secure events, such as live music gigs in shared outdoor spaces or reception areas. One obvious challenge, he says, is to “flatten out” the midweek peak in office use and encourage some staff to commute in on Mondays and Fridays.

Just how sticky such short-term incentives prove once lockdown lifts may depend on post-pandemic budgets. Megan Lyon, chief strategy officer at another furniture maker Herman Miller, best known for the Aeron office chair, warns, “Once you offer free food or incentives, it’s hard to [take] them back”.

Cash

Few companies are paying bonuses to staff to use the office again, but there are outliers, including some companies offering giftcards and vouchers.

CoStar, a real estate data company, made headlines with its decision in April to randomly reward one US employee $10,000 every day, provided they were vaccinated and working in the office at least one day a week. The cash handouts have now ended, but a trip to Barbados and a Tesla are still on offer. The primary aim of CoStar’s prize-giving was to encourage staff to be vaccinated, but the proportion of workers in its US offices has jumped from 11 per cent in April to 56 per cent in the second week of June.

There are also early signs of some salary readjustment to reflect the new work landscape. Facebook this month said all employees could work remotely after the pandemic, but their salaries would be recalibrated if they moved to lower-cost regions. That is a luxury that may not be allowed to other employers, some of which are having to offer perks simply to fill vacancies in a tight labour market.

Caution is advisable if considering cash or cash-like incentives, says Tina Gilbert of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a consultancy specialising in diversity, equity and inclusion: “Don’t reward your highest paid and penalise those who are in essence living pay cheque to pay cheque,” she says.

What ultimately draws people back to the office, and how long they stay there, will depend on the company, specific teams or individuals. “I tell customers there’s no single formula,” says Donna Flynn, the company’s vice-president of global talent. “You have to think of your employees and your business and what’s right to bring those two together.”

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