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Ask the Evil HR Lady: How do I get reluctant workers back to office?

This is part of a series in which The Evil HR Lady addresses a HR question or challenging situation. Here, she focuses on how to manage workers who openly flout company requirements to return to the office.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

Ask the Evil HR Lady

Q: Prior to the pandemic, everyone worked in the office. Of course, just about everyone worked from home. Six months ago, the company owner asked everyone to return to the office. Only about half of the people did.

What do I do about the other half? We have 120 employees in two states, and I’m the HR manager. Can I require them to return to the office? Pay people who work from home less money? The owner is angry that they are defying his order to return to the office.

Of course, the standard advice here is to present data to the owner “proving” that people are more productive working at home. The owner would then counter with reports from big named CEOs (Tesla CEO Elon Musk, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon) that want people in the office.

In the meantime, employees don’t want to come in and some are probably quitting.

And there you sit, the HR manager, with your head in your hands (regardless of whether you’re one of the rebellious who is still at home or you’ve also returned to the office), wondering if perhaps you should have gone into marketing instead.

Here are some suggestions on how to get through this.

Evaluate everyone’s ‘temperature’

It is not time to pull out the old COVID-19 thermometers – you just want to check how hot and cold the various groups are in their positions. It’s pretty clear that the employees don’t think anything bad will happen to them if they don’t come into the office – as they would have already either come in or quit outright.

What if the owner put his foot down and gave an ultimatum? How many would actually leave? What if you could convince the owner to do a hybrid office where everyone was in the office two or three days a week? How would people respond to that?

You want to know what you’re actually facing here.

Likewise, talk to the owner about how serious he is about having people come in. Is this the hill to die on or does he want people in the office just because it’s always been done this way? Hybrid, of course, is the best of both worlds. How does he feel about that?

Related: Remote, hybrid or back to the office? How to decide on the right return-to-work plan for your company

And if after all this discussion, the owner insists: everyone in the office or else! Then that brings you to your next step.

Decide if you’re all in

If it’s come in or else, you probably think it’s a bad decision, even if it’s a legal one. You can require employees to return to the office (as long as working from home isn’t a legitimate ADA accommodation). You can absolutely fire people who refuse to come in. You can slash salaries to minimum wage if people want to work from home. That’s all legal.

Related: Return to office has huge benefits, says one talent director

But the reality is that slashing salaries won’t make people come in. It will make them quit. Forcing people to come in will work temporarily, and then you’ll lose your best people who want to work from home. And you may even lose those who came into the office but aren’t happy with losing their favorite colleague or are dismayed at the eventual drop in morale.

You can replace all of them. Honestly, there are people who want to work in the office. Some people are willing to work in the office for more money. You can find them. But as the HR manager, it will be you who has to find the people. Even if you have a recruiter focused on replacing these people, you know a good portion of the burden will fall on you.

So, decide if you’re all in. Is this a boss you want to support? Because if he’s chosen this as his hill to die on, as the HR manager, you need to be willing to join him on that hill. It’s not something you can do half-heartedly.

If you’re telling the CEO you’re working on getting people back, and then (wink, wink) you’re telling the employees you’re working on softening the owner’s heart, you’ll just get yanked back and forth.

It’s OK to say, “No, I’m not all in. I can’t support this.” Make your final case to the CEO, and then start looking for a new job if you can’t win him over.

But if you decide to stay, you need to be all in. You have to support the efforts and be the rah-rah cheerleader. This is not a time for a lukewarm attitude.

Make the office a place people want to be

No, it’s not HR’s place to be interior decorators or pool table installers. But, if you’ve decided to stay and be all in on this, it is your place to make this company a place where employees want to physically be.

This means your focus should be on building a collaborative environment where people benefit from being around each other. As you will undoubtedly have people quit over this new rule, make sure the new hires truly want to be in the office. Try to weed out those who are hoping to work from home and took the job as a stop-gap measure. I know this is hard, but it will be helpful if you emphasize that being in the office is part of this job.

And yes, occasional lunches, free sodas in the kitchen, and maybe even a pool table will be worth your trouble. But don’t stop there. There are many ways to make an office an attractive place to work.

Being the HR manager in a situation isn’t easy, but you can do it – if you want to. It will take concerted effort, but it can be done.

Further reading: 37.5% of US workers value flexwork – but companies aren’t on board

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