The Great Return to the Office: The Manager’s Role in Creating the Optimal Workplace

Prior to the pandemic, employees asking for flexibility usually meant working from home. As we now realize, flexibility is more than that.

By Darrell X. Rounds, contributing writer  

The topic of the state of the workplace in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been discussed throughout the facilities management industry over the last two-plus years. One thing for certain is that the pandemic taught maintenance and engineering managers that work could get done leveraging telecommuting technology, eliminating the need for employees to be present in a physical office and workplace. 

COVID-19 taught managers the meaning of flexibility. Prior to the pandemic, employees asking for flexibility usually meant working from home. As we now realize, flexibility is more than that. It is the ability for employees to fit their work into their daily lives. 

COVID-19 taught managers that communication with employees was key. Effective streams of communication are integral to employee engagement and in ensuring that employees are aligned with the mission of the organization. 

The pandemic taught us that wellness was essential. Along with the everyday rigors of life, the stresses brought on by the pandemic truly necessitated the need for employees to learn how to establish healthy work-life balance. 

Flexibility, communication and wellness are only three of the many areas that COVID-19 challenged managers to redefine and improve for their employees. Collaboration and ideation were challenged because traditionally these processes were best accomplished via in-person interactions. But for the sake of business continuity, platforms like MS Teams, Zoom, and GoTo Meeting enabled a level of collaboration. But nothing can replace old-fashioned in-person whiteboarding and water cooler talks. 

COVID-19 affected building operating costs in different ways. Particular property-related expenses significantly increased. These include COVID-19-related deep cleaning and disinfecting costs, additional janitorial services such as high touch point cleaning as buildings reopen, and COVID-19-related re-occupancy costs for signage, partitions, hand sanitizer and communication to tenants to prepare to return to work. 

Expenses that decreased because of reduced occupancy include trash removal and overall janitorial expenses. Expenses that remained constant were costs associated with service contracts, proactive maintenance, landscaping, and real estate taxes. Depending on the situation, some costs that may have varied from building to building include utilities based on building occupancy and HVAC operation, and management and maintenance staffing costs depending upon whether staff members were retained during the time that occupancy was reduced. 

Understanding worker needs 

With respect to COVID-19, institutional and commercial facilities have come a long way from where they were in March 2020. The impact of COVID-19 has diminished significantly to the point where employers and organizations now are asking their employees to return to the office. 

One common question in this situation is, “Wasn’t the remote or hybrid work model working?” In many cases, the answer to that question is yes, but some organizations feel the need to have employees in the office because it justifies the use of the space that they own that had not been used for the last two years. 

Some organizations simply want their people in the workplace. As my colleague Mike Petrusky of iOFFICE highlights said in his podcast interview with HOK’s Gordon Wright, “One of the constraints of hybrid working is the human factor.” When it comes to managing the hybrid workplace, the C-suite is dealing with big questions, such as: 

  • How am I going to engage my employees? 
  • How am I going to continue to innovate? 
  • How am I going to continue to lead this organization? 

Creating a balance around these issues poses a challenge for most managers, but the easy response for addressing challenges that these questions pose is bringing employees back into the workplace. The problem is that many employees are not thrilled about having to come back into the office. 

Why don’t employees want to come back? There are several reasons. In a blog featured on, Maria Akhter cites five reasons employees do not want to return to the office: 

  • The commute is too long and too expensive. Many employees say the time spent commuting could be spent doing other things, including working, resting or enjoying time with friends and family. 
  • Employees say they will lose flexibility in the way they become accustomed to working. They worry that workdays will look the same as they did before the pandemic, meaning the traditional 9 to 5 schedule. For many, this lack of flexibility is a deal breaker. 
  • Third, employees cite slow or outdated technology as a deal breaker for returning to the workplace. Employees who work remotely can control the quality of their technology and do not have to deal with outdated workplace technology at all.  
  • Employees say their coworkers are too chatty. Many employees have become accustomed to the solitude of their home offices and can focus on getting things done there.  
  • Employees say their colleagues often are not on site. Most in-person office arrangements might be hybrid, so the chance exists that many employees might not connect with colleagues for collaboration opportunities due to improper scheduling. 

Optimizing workspaces 

Although these and other reasons can explain employees’ reluctance to return to the workplace, managers play an important role in providing the optimal work environment where employees can thrive and succeed in the workplace. Considering this and all the factors that have allowed us to come to this point, what can managers do with office environments and workspaces that would make employees more willing to return to the office? 

Global design and architecture firm Gensler, through the work of Cindy Coleman and Don Ricker, offers insights to consider on their blog, 10 Considerations for Transitioning Back to Work in a Post-COVID-19 World. 

As employees still desire flexibility, a hybrid model employing a mix of working from home and working from the office during the typical work week would be in order. A hybrid workplace equipped with the right tools and technology enables employees not only to have the choice to collaborate in person or remotely as needed but also to be more productive and engaged. 

Workspaces also must be flexible and incorporated into workplace models. According to Coleman and Ricker, “Providing choice and flexibility in the workplace allows workers to determine when and where they are most productive in the office. Office amenities play a key role in humanizing the work experience and holistically deliver a purpose focusing on physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Places to lounge and decompress support workers in addition to walking paths, exercise spaces and healthy food. Third spaces like work cafes, libraries and business lounges offer informal ways for employees to benefit from mentorship, absorb the culture, and build camaraderie and social networks.” 

Keeping it clean 

Although the impact of COVID has diminished, the need for clean and hygienic workplaces remains. As managers endeavor to maintain hygienic spaces, they also need to communicate cleaning regimens is necessary. 

“In the office, where multipurpose and shared spaces may be the norm, physical and visible cleaning regimens are the new standard,” write Coleman and Ricker. “As we enter the endemic stages and offices reopen, there are pandemic influences that will stick with us as well as new habits and hygienic expectations. COVID influences like air purification, regular cleaning, and disinfecting plans and policies are still in place along with the sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizers.” 

With employees returning to the office and the workplace, managers must ensure they play their role in providing occupants with the best spaces to thrive. In recognizing that many employees might not welcome the idea of returning to the office, key attributes such as flexibility, communication and technology will be integral to a great workplace experience. 

Managers must ensure that the cleanliness and hygienic practices are robust so employees are comfortable. Technology must be in good working order, and the integrity of telecommunications systems, IT requirements and Internet connectivity must be a priority because these issues have been important and critical to employees’ work success during the pandemic. 

Workspace configuration must be conducive to employees’ ability to collaborate and generate ideas in line with the mission of their respective organizations. Managers have a tall task, but their role in helping the C-suite combat the adverse attitudes employees might have regarding the great return into the workplace is integral to the overall success of their organizations. 

The great return to the office is here. It is happening in many organizations. Some are happy about the opportunity to return to the workplace, while others are not thrilled to return because they feel that the flexibility they now have will be taken away. Managers must combat this notion by providing the necessary tools for employees to thrive. Flexibility, communication and technology are key aspects to this success. Managers are positioned to aid in facilitating this success through continued excellence in operating and maintaining the workplaces they are responsible for. 

Darrell X. Rounds is senior manager of global workplace risk mitigation with General Motors Co. and a 25-year veteran in the company’s facilities management space. He works in GM’s global workplace safety organization focusing on contractor safety and product launch safety. He earned the designation of Facilities Management Administrator (FMA) from BOMI International and is a Certified Energy Manager (C.E.M.) with the Association of Energy Engineers. 

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  posted on 1/9/2023   Article Use Policy

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