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Forced to Return to Office (RTO)? This Guide Can Help You Survive—and Thrive

forced to return to office rto


Forced to Return to Office (RTO)? This Guide Can Help You Survive—and Thrive

Let’s talk about return to office. Don’t feel like reading? Listen here!

Labor Day has passed, and several companies have implemented Return to Office (RTO) policies forcing employees who were previously working remotely to come back to their office environment.

Tesla, Apple, Peloton, Comcast, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Royal Bank of Canada, and Credit Karma are among several large organizations that are now requiring workers to return to the office.

Some (Apple included) are implementing hybrid roles. Others (such as Tesla) want employees who previously worked on-site back on-site. General Motors indicated they would require workers to return to the office, but the company has delayed that decision amid employee backlash.

Employees Are Reluctant to Return to the Office

Employers implementing return-to-office mandates often cite increased productivity and the ability to work more closely with your team as reasons they want workers back in the office.

Many workers, however, are not on the same page as their employer and resist the change to going back to the office. The loss of flexibility and going back to long, stressful, and gas-guzzling commutes makes them cringe.

Being in an office environment with COVID still making a major impact is frightening for many, including those with compromised health conditions. Workplace safety is also a concern. But the number one complaint comes back to the loss of flexibility.

Loss of Flexibility

“We’ve all gotten used to being able to take care of things at home while doing our job, which led to having more free time,” says Christy Pruitt-Haynes, an HR expert and consultant at NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed consultancy advising 64% of Fortune 100 organizations, including Microsoft, Ford, and more, on workplace culture, leadership strategies and management skills, and DE&I.

For example, says Pruitt-Haynes, most employees routinely take a break to walk around the office. During remote work, that same walk is to the washer and dryer to put in a load of laundry or to the dishwasher to start it.

“Those tasks could run while the employee was working, freeing their evenings up a bit,” says Pruitt-Haynes. “That is now gone.”

return to office rto policies

Toxic Office Environments

For some employees, the office felt like a toxic environment where their knowledge and sense of belonging were constantly challenged.

“Returning to that environment can bring up feelings that range from fear and anger to resentment and stress,” says Pruitt-Haynes.

Having open conversations with co-workers and managers about your concerns and seeking the understanding of affinity groups can be ways to combat that.

COVID Concerns

What’s more, many employees have physical health concerns.

“The more we are around people, the higher the possibility of contracting COVID or some other illness,” says Pruitt-Haynes. “For those with compromised health, people who take care of compromised children or elderly parents, that can be a very scary thought. Losing the ability to decide if and when you interact with others is scary.”

Employees need to think through how they want to handle new challenges that didn’t exist before the pandemic, adds Pruitt-Haynes. For example, if they live with other individuals, how will they handle exposure risks or warnings? If a child is exposed to COVID at school and needs to stay home, how will they handle work responsibilities?

Pruitt-Haynes says some organizations are providing wristbands for employees returning to the office to try and eliminate the potential for awkward or potentially risky encounters when in an office environment. Examples include:

  • A red wristband means “I’ll wave from across the room.”
  • A yellow wristband means: “I’m comfortable with an elbow or fist bump.”
  • A green wristband means “I’m cool to shake hands or hug.”

For example, says Pruitt-Haynes, most employees routinely take a break to walk around the office. During remote work, that same walk is to the washer and dryer to put in a load of laundry or to the dishwasher to start it.

“Those tasks could run while the employee was working, freeing their evenings up a bit,” says Pruitt-Haynes. “That is now gone.”

return to office

Easing the Transition Back to the Office

There are no one-size-fits-all strategies for individuals forced to return to the office—no matter what policies or procedures companies put into place, but these tips and strategies can help today’s worker who is forced to return to the office make the most of the situation:

Prepare in Advance for Returning to the Office

In 2013, Nola Simon was forced back into the office under the threat of layoffs. She knows what it feels like to work so hard to make remote work successful and then lose all flexibility.

“It’s hard to have a choice about where you work stripped from you,” says Simon, now a Hybrid/Remote Work Futurist at Nola Simon Advisory. “It’s demotivating, but not everyone has the option to find a new job that allows flexibility.”

To successfully return to the office, start thinking about implementing this routine about two weeks before returning to the office: Visualize the first day back, prepare and go through the entire routine, planning every step of the way, thinking about both work and home responsibilities, including:

  • When do you wake up?
  • How do you feel?
  • What does the morning routine look like?
  • Who else do you have to get ready?
  • What will you wear?
  • Where will you eat?
  • What route do you take to work?
  • Has anything changed since you last were in the office?
  • Where will you sit when you get to the office?
  • How will you incorporate the things that make you feel good – exercise, reading, meditation, and others?

“Once you’ve answered these questions and imagined yourself doing the actions, do a test commute. Tweak anything that doesn’t work or feel good.”

Stay Positive and Be Flexible

Remember that things may not be the same as they were before you started working remotely.

“Expect that others will be in a similar position and aim to develop empathy as you go through the transition,” says Matthew Ramirez, founder of Paraphrase Tool.

“You can use this opportunity to be a source of strength and stability for others while being sure to let your manager know how you’re feeling and what your needs are.” 

Adjust Your Schedule and Routine

Remote workers cherish the increased flexibility and added time that was lost when commuting every day and spending 40-60 hours a week at the office.

Remember, only your working conditions have changed—all your other responsibilities remain the same.

“You need to find time to care for yourself, your home, and your family despite being committed to a work environment for most of the day,” says David Aylor, of David Aylor Law Offices. “Now that you’re back in the office, you need to re-adapt to a stricter schedule. You may not have as much time to clean, run errands, or complete other daily tasks as you were before. You may need to install a to-do list app or calendar app to help you better manage your time when you get off work.”

Forced RTO: Bring the New Hacks and Tools You’ve Learned with You

Just because you’re going back doesn’t mean you need to throw away any new productivity hacks you learned while working from home.

“Throughout the pandemic, we all learned how to use technology more efficiently and become more independent with our problem-solving skills,” says Ubaldo Perez, CEO of Hush Anesthetic. “It is important to realize that everyone returning to the office will more or less feel the same way about changing their routine which makes it the perfect opportunity to bond and make some new friends. After all, companies are nothing but groups of people, and the more we like each other, the better the work we can accomplish together.”

Set Boundaries

If you’ve been working remotely, this may have blurred many boundaries. When you’re working from your sofa or kitchen table, it’s hard to separate work from home.

“You could be having a meal with your family but still be responding to emails from your team,” says Dean Kaplan, The Kaplan Group.

“In shifting back to the office, take the opportunity to reset your boundaries in terms of when and where you will be available. Perhaps you prefer to communicate by Slack instead of face-to-face. Or maybe you prefer weekly check-in meetings to daily ones. Consider what works best for your well-being and productivity, and let your employer know your preferences.”

forced to return to office

Re-Onboard Yourself to Get Back into the Office Environment Workflow

When you go back to the office, it’s a good idea to make sure you understand all the new policies and any other changes that may have taken place, says Anthony Martin, founder, and CEO of Choice Mutual. You want to be fully aware of everything new to do your best work.

Ideally, your employers will have brought you up to date on all of this, but if you feel in the dark in any way, over-communicate to ensure you have all the information to avoid any missteps when you return. For example, are there any new policies surrounding employee emails or manager meetings? Are there new safety policies in place?

“This has been a period of rapid change, and you want to be informed of what’s happening next so you can do your best work when you return to the office,” says Martin.

Personalize Your Office Workspace

The best way to acclimatize back to an in-person desk setting is to add a personal touch to your area. This will help you connect back to the sense of security and familiarity you experienced in your home office and tap back into that zone of high performance and productivity you enjoyed remotely.

“Your home office felt like a safe, comfortable space to get business tasks done,” says Brian Nagele, CEO of Restaurant Clicks. “Your return to the office can be either a dream or nightmare based on how you treat this not-so-new space.”

Transition in a Way That Works Best for You

Karim Hachem, VP of eCommerce at Sunshine79, says if you have to go back to an office environment, why not do it on your terms?

Find a quiet and relaxing place in your office or nearby so that you have a place to go whenever you need to recharge or take a break from your work. For example, if you were used to going for walks to clear your head when you worked remotely and your office has a courtyard with trees, make that your break area, and tell your manager you’ll be taking sporadic breaks outside for your well-being.

“Giving yourself exactly what you need is the best way to set yourself up for a healthy transition back to the office,” says Hachem.  

Choose an Epic Playlist You Can Listen To

At some point during your return to office journey, you will feel the need to isolate, be on your own and just focus on work without distractions.

“That’s where your playlist and headphones will come in super handy,” says Michael Nemeroff, CEO of RushOrderTees. “Having an epic playlist that you can listen to, shut everyone out and focus on the work at hand will help you go into your little bubble and heavily impact your work mood. Preparing a suitable playlist that will uplift your mood while allowing you to concentrate is an essential return to the office step.”

Take Care of Yourself

Many companies—especially large organizations, offer free mental health services as part of their benefit plans. If your company does, reach out and have discussions about being forced to return to work with mental health professionals. This can help you deal with any challenges of going back to an office environment.

In addition, while you may now have less time, continue to try to find time to exercise, or spend time doing the things you love: Biking, playing pickleball, gardening, reading, going for walks and seeing friends and family. Try to stay involved in the same activities you did before when working remotely. Your health and well-being are important.

Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up

Just because you’re going back into the office doesn’t mean you have to revert to the way things used to be, says Patrick Robinson, founder, and designer for Paskho.

Robinson explains, “Many people, myself included, have found new and more efficient ways of doing things in remote environments.”

“Most companies I talk to see hybrid work as being a staple going forward in the way they plan to conduct business. If you have ideas about how to improve the new in-office environment, don’t be afraid to speak up and share your thoughts with management. Success favors the proactive and those who speak up.”

return to office guide

How to Make the Most of a Forced Return to Office

Pruitt-Haynes offers these additional tips and things to consider:

  • Look for the silver lining: Will this allow you to get to know your co-workers better so you can better collaborate with them? Does this present an opportunity for you to display your expertise in a new way that was harder to do virtually?
  • It is also still very appropriate for each employee to choose the level of protective garments they want to wear. Some employees may feel more comfortable wearing a mask or face shield and companies must normalize that.
  • Others may want to refrain from shaking hands or sitting directly next to other people in meetings and that is ok too.
  • The biggest thing companies have to keep in mind is that everyone is going to feel a little different about returning to the office. Some will be thrilled, and some will be terrified. Both ends of that spectrum are ok and normal and it is up to each organization to create an environment that considers everyone.
  • Making sure people leaders are trained on how to manage hybrid employees and how to respond to concerns is critical because one misstep can have devastating effects on morale, productivity, and safety.

Return to Office and Employee Morale

“Employee morale will vary by each person but for most, not having the choice will be a tough pill to swallow,” says Pruitt-Haynes. “Even employees who want to work in the office enjoy the flexibility and autonomy to make that decision for themselves, especially when there aren’t any apparent advantages to being in the office versus working remotely.

It will take time to adjust to working in an office environment. Use these tips on how to return to the office to not only survive but to thrive.

Picture of Matt Krumrie
Matt Krumrie
Matt Krumrie is a resume expert and freelance writer whose work has been published in over 200 newspapers, websites, and magazines. He has 15+ years of experience writing resumes for clients of all backgrounds, from college grad, to entry-level to mid-career, executive and more. Matt lives in Minnesota.

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