Employee engagement
Remote work

Maximizing Employee Engagement During the Return-to-Office Process

Connie Du
April 7, 2021
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It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?

The outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic has prompted new ways of thinking about work—with remote and flexible work emerging as chief topics. We’ve learned a lot in the transition to remote work as we socially-distanced for the health of our colleagues, and now it’s time to apply those insights to the next step in getting back to normal—our return to the office.

Guru and Bonusly are partnering to bring you the best return-to-office resources and ideas. Make sure to check out Guru's article: How to Prep Employees For a Return to the Office!

Before we dive into the tactical aspects of a smooth transition back to the office, let’s first talk about some change management principles.

What is change management?

Change management is exactly what it sounds like—it’s providing a company with skills, resources, and tips to help them navigate through times of change.

What does that support look like? We drew from existing change management frameworks to identify four tactics you should utilize in your return-to-office (RTO) plan to keep employee morale and motivation high:

  • Gather signals from your employees.
  • Form a guiding coalition.
  • Stay transparent.
  • Generate and celebrate short-term wins.

Let’s dive into each one.

Utilizing change management principles to prepare for RTO

Gather signals from your employees

In the case of RTO, the decisions made have a huge impact on your employees’ lives—it could mean needing to outsource childcare or enduring a long commute—so it’s especially imperative that you gather their opinions and preferences as you plan for RTO.

Even if you’re communicating regularly with your team, you know what they say about assumptions. 😉

That’s why surveying your employees should be your first step in the RTO process. If you’re already sending regular employee engagement surveys, it should be easy enough to add on some questions related to RTO.


At Bonusly, our People Operations team just sent out an RTO-specific survey that included questions like:

  • What are you looking forward to most about going back to the office?
  • What are your biggest concerns about returning to the office?
  • What did you enjoy most about working from home?
  • What were your biggest challenges working from home?
  • What would your ideal working schedule look like?

Of course, the goal of this survey isn’t to create a customized RTO plan for every employee. Depending on your industry, you might be limited in what you can offer. This can even vary by team—perhaps your finance team would like a few days at home a week to crunch the numbers, while your marketing team absolutely needs every team member in the office to maximize collaboration opportunities.

What surveying your employees aims to do is to identify how your company can be make RTO a smoother process. If your employees are still wary about working in crowded indoor spaces, you can set up distanced work stations. If they’re okay with a hybrid working model (combined in-person and remote teams) but are concerned about the lack of collaboration tools in the office, you’ll know to look into installing high-quality video conferencing in each meeting room.

Form a guiding coalition

You don’t have to go it alone (especially you, HR-team-of-one!).

One of the best ways to keep employee engagement and motivation high is by including them in the process. You’ll likely have some employees that are super stoked to go back into the office, and leaning on them to create an exciting, fun atmosphere is a great way to engage the larger team.


Take this story about a coalition at IBM as inspiration:

For example, one such group emerged at IBM as employees transitioned to working from home earlier this year. They took it upon themselves to establish guiding principles to help make work and life easier for themselves and their colleagues, collaborating with business and HR leaders to evolve their efforts into a company-wide pledge. [...] This grassroots effort likely did more to accelerate the company’s transition to productive remote work, and on a faster timeline, than any corporate-led initiative could have.
–Sarah Jensen Clayton, An Agile Approach to Change Management

This is the time to lean on your culture leaders to help brainstorm ideas to keep employees engaged and motivated throughout the RTO process. They’re a resource to help formulate working agreements, ideate fun events, and help smooth the transition for their fellow employees.

Stay transparent

Being open and communicative about your RTO policies and procedures is essential. Even if a majority of your colleagues are excited about seeing each other and working together in-person, adjusting to a new routine has mental and physical impacts.

It’s key to be clear about your RTO expectations.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have all the answers, all the time! In fact, our annual Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report found that Highly Engaged employees are 3.2 times more likely to be on a team that encourages open discussion of anxiety and stress at work than Actively Disengaged employees.


Be proactive, instead of reactive. For example, be cognizant that your employees may experience a dip in productivity as they adjust to their new schedules and communicate that you’re there to help with resources and support. You can also use a tool like Guru for your internal communications, so your teams can return to your resources as much as they need.

Guru and Bonusly are partnering to bring you the best return-to-office resources and ideas. Make sure to check out Guru's article: How to Prep Employees For a Return to the Office!

Plus, the great thing about being transparent is that it invites feedback. Advocate for a psychologically-safe workplace by communicating your intent to iterate and experiment with your RTO process, and more broadly, how your organization approaches The Future of Work and work scheduling.

Generate and celebrate short-term wins

Removing obstacles is going to be a key part of your RTO plan. Depending on what state you left your office in when we originally transitioned to remote work, this might be a heavy lift. 😅

The great thing about proactively gathering feedback, listening to concerns, and crowdsourcing your RTO plan is that you (and your team!) will likely have a lot of obstacles to tackle—which just means being able to celebrate those wins once you tick them off your checklist.

Recognize employees for the work they’re doing to prepare for RTO. 

From responding to surveys to providing feedback to getting vaccinated (!), celebrating these small wins keeps momentum and excitement for RTO going. Plus, making recognition visible is a great way to make your organization aware of the hard work occurring—whether it’s related to RTO or beyond.


Transitioning back into the office is going to be exciting and draining for many employees—being vocal about their flexibility, open-mindedness, and collaboration as the team adjusts to being in the office again. Plus, it’s another great practice that encourages employee engagement, transparency, and psychological safety. 😄

86% of Highly Engaged employees were recognized the last time they went above and beyond at work compared to only 31% of Actively Disengaged employees.
–Bonusly, 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report

Key takeaways

Return-to-office is going to be stressful, exciting, and unprecedented. 😳

It’s not every day the world emerges from a global pandemic!

If you take one thing away from this article, it’s this: Take cues from your employees. While some organizations are able to be more flexible about their work schedules than others, actively soliciting feedback will help you identify and alleviate the concerns you do have control over.

For more employee engagement resources, check out:

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