Learn how your organization can create a competitive advantage in the labor market by optimizing employee wellbeing that supports a more comfortable and successful transition.

As employees are asked to spend more time in the office after extended periods of remote or hybrid work, some reluctance and readjustment challenges are likely. There's no template for a smooth transition. But a framework for considering key factors that affect employees' physical, emotional and financial wellbeing helps in making supportive decisions.

Policies and other expectations for working in the office differ. But for many employers, they may have similar, unintended effects. Fundamental to creating a comfortable and productive environment for returning employees is identifying elements that contributed to those areas in the past, and still do. They serve an important purpose. Positive familiarity will likely be inviting and even grounding for many employees. From there, it's a matter of adapting policies and practices to the present.

The limits of remote work platforms to foster collaboration, connectivity and trust are very apparent to employers. Findings from a recent pulse survey show that nearly 7 in 10 expect their employees to work from the office at least 1 day a week, and either 5 days (53%) or 3 days (23%) are typically required. In roughly equal portions, the rationale given by most employers for this decision is either industry necessity or enhanced collaboration. Other interests include ensuring accountability, building social connectedness and increasing productivity.1

3% of companies require 1 day per week; 13% require 2; 23% require 3;  9% require 4; 53% require 5.

Seeking social connectivity

While remote work can be great for reducing attrition, improving performance and increasing employee satisfaction, it isn't always ideal for emotional wellbeing.2 Working outside the office hinders social connectivity. In the US and several other countries, 7 in 10 workers feel they're unable to socialize enough when working remotely, and 2 in 5 associate a lack of face-to-face coworker interactions with loneliness.3

Among the key challenges of remote work for managers is an absence of visibility into employee wellbeing. It's often easier to spot symptoms of loneliness and burnout when regular interactions occur, either in-person or through digital video. Signs of tiredness, overwork, disconnection and a decline in motivation may be more readily apparent.4

Loneliness is closely linked to a person's psychological wiring and social experiences in life. Employees with a strong need for affiliation — who enjoy more connectivity, teamwork and collaboration — feel more lonely, stressed and anxious when working apart from others. Consequently, their interest in a hybrid arrangement or returning to the office full time may be greater. An exception, though, is those who are emotionally stable but prefer solitude. They're likely to have a much more positive remote work experience and a lower inclination to return to the office.2

For employees whose backgrounds and innate characteristics aren't as well represented within the workforce as others, the psychological impact of returning to the office may be more significant. A sense of otherness can make the transition more challenging at a deeply personal level. With more control over their work environment at home, there's less code-switching pressure to conform to majority norms. Taking practical measures to minimize discomfort in the office will leave employers better positioned to meet their goals for improved collaboration, social connectedness and productivity.

Considerations related to proximity and financial and physical wellbeing

Looking back, one positive aspect of the pandemic in many industries was an expanded job market. Remote work allowed employers to hire from outside their geographic area, and provided a welcome alternative for employees who left jobs because the workplace wasn't designed for their needs.

Current priorities that are shifting the work-location balance back to an in-office presence have distinct advantages, but also bring the potential for unwelcome consequences. Some remote employees may have moved farther away, even beyond a reasonable driving distance from the office, assuming that working from home would be a permanent option. And many more may simply be frustrated with employment terms that suddenly changed.

Remote workers have also become accustomed to the financial benefits of working from home. Lower car mileage, less commuting time, and savings on gas, parking and meals can be significant. But financial stressors that accompany a return to the office can compromise some of the positive social benefits.

Traveling to the office can make it more difficult for some employees to afford social opportunities at work such as lunches, happy hours and birthday celebrations. In fact, cost concerns prompt 72% to pass up gatherings with family and friends, as well as coworkers. Financial instability and debt has negatively affected the social wellbeing of 64% of employees.5

Asking employees to spend more time at the office comes with a responsibility to foster and nurture social connections. To avoid attrition, that commitment should extend beyond a transition period — constancy is a cultural imperative. Creating opportunities for socialization and bonding can help, as long as they don't add financial stress.

Managing different work styles with empathy

A multitude of considerations go into return-to-office decisions. Receptivity on the part of returning employees hinges on effective communication about the rationale for this change. Preparing managers to discuss expectations and help make accommodations supports a more comfortable and successful transition.

Minimizing employee frustration with the process of reaching an agreement on accommodations is key. Policies and practices that are accessible to as many people as possible provide a foundation, along with employers' flexibility and an openness to improvements. Through personalized guidance for making accommodations and choosing wellbeing resources, employers can also show their commitment to promoting a positive employee experience.

Managers must also make a transition. They need time to learn how to direct employees through the acclimation process, and that goal is a work in progress for many organizations. Providing guidance on how to set clear expectations and show empathy can reduce barriers for settling on accommodations, whether return-to-office or remote.

When someone alerts a manager to a life challenge, the response should be two fold. Besides informing the employee of policies and services, it's important to offer help with accessing available resources. A direct action taken by someone who knows the employee has more impact than advice to contact HR or to use the employee assistance program. For managers, remembering that visibility into fully remote employees isn't the same as providing effective support may require a conscious effort.

Outside assistance can help in forming effective employee resource groups or affinity groups, and evaluating approaches for improving mental health and reducing loneliness. Third parties may also offer experience in guiding challenging conversations with the workforce and analyzing feedback to reveal underlying sentiments. Strategic insights can then be applied toward meeting workforce and organizational goals, with a focus on taking care of specific needs and overall wellbeing.

Better organizational outcomes from a human-centered approach

A disability or health condition affects 1 in 4 employees, but not all disabilities or health conditions are visible.6 Waiting until an employee asks for an accommodation can put employers at a disadvantage and make it difficult to adapt, especially in the absence of a standardized process or a centralized budget. Establishing policies more strongly supports these employees, including those who face the added challenge of caregiving.

Compliance and risk mitigation are essential return-to-office considerations, but a human-centered approach that values all workers in all life situations is equally important.

Compliance and risk mitigation are essential return-to-office considerations, but a human-centered approach that values all workers in all life situations is equally important. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommends engaging in an interactive process that considers the interests of both sides when determining appropriate accommodations.6 And regular reviews help ensure that solutions are still appropriate, such as verifying that remote work and office equipment requests aren't cumbersome.

Clear objectives for returning employees to the office, paired with a proactive plan that establishes supporting policies, prepare employers for better outcomes. Implicit-bias training for employees at all levels, voluntary self-identification, and access to employee resource and affinity groups are among the key practices for establishing a welcoming culture. With a unified workforce, employers can create an environment that not only encourages returning to the office — but also staying with the organization.

Author Information


1" Organizational Wellbeing Poll: Social Connectedness, Performance and Health," Gallagher. Unpublished internal data.

2Kubiak, Emeric. "Preventing Loneliness in Remote Working," Psychology Today, 3 Oct 2022.

3 Miller, Stephen and Kathy Gurchiek. "Lonely at Work," SHRM, 25 Feb 2023.

4"How to Deal with Loneliness: A Growing Workplace Challenge," Lyra Health, 11 Jul 2023.

5Hafner, Lee. "Financial stress Is Taking a Toll on Employees' Social Lives," Employee Benefit News, 03 Jul 2023.

6Lu, Wendy. "What a 'Human-Centered' Approach Can Do for Workers with Disabilities," The New York Times, 21 Jul 2023. Gated.


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