Planning Your Return to the Office?

This is What You Need To Know.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has influenced employees aspirations for a more flexible, or new way of working for the future. This new way of working is something that is tailored for each organization, one that suits the culture, work process, business vision and employee preferences and while enabling the business to deliver against it’s plan.

We’ve written this open text with the intention of helping small to large companies to navigate the journey ahead.

The return to office strategy will be more successful if it is a plan that is co-created with employees, maximising ‘buy-in’ to the solution; the best way to achieve this is through a program of engagement activities where concerns, preferences, opportunities and constraints can be worked through and solutions developed.

We advocate a phased approach to implementing a return to the office, an approach which benefits from continual learning and development of solutions, but also allows for regional/geographical variations due to statutory requirements, local customs and cultures.

There is no need to rush or enforce a re-occupation of the workplace, this will likely lead to employee dissatisfaction and talent leaving your business. We recognize that the change will be at the pace that the business can cope with, not all companies have the cash to make changes right now.

Hopefully with this guide you can manage your own journey or if you prefer we are here to guide or lead you, successfully implementing a new way of working and / or a return to office strategy.

new office opening

New Ways of Working

Which Approach works best for you? 

Do you feel it’s important to really find out how the workplace can support employees to do their best work? By understanding which location works best for them, and which type of work setting enables them to be most productive for each activity?

There's more than one approach. Taking a top-down approach, asking managers, leaders or even workplace/real estate leads to estimate locational attendance, types of worker profiles (collaborators/focus etc.) and what design will suit them, will lead most likely to misinformed approaches.

Why? They do not have the benefit of detailed knowledge of employees’ daily activities to be able to do this with any accuracy that could be of any use for designing workplaces. (we've learned this through many years of data collation and interviews across hundreds if not thousands of stakeholders).

This approach also misses the critical element of engaging people in the change process and allowing employees to feel that they have enriched and participated in the design of their own space.

A psychologist or anthropologist would support an employee engaged and human centric approach.

At this time (November 2021) utilization surveys and sensor analysis only capture data associated with disrupted, pandemic impacted activities, and will not give a true reflection of preferred future working patterns. But useful once a new workplace is occupied to tweak worksettings.

The recommended approach now, is to ask employees, using their data to co-create solutions. After all, they are the ones that know the most about their daily activities, and what will work for them.

Using our innovative WEX Engagement tool this is exactly what we do. 

We assess days per week in the office, we then filter this by team. We know their preferred in-office activities, what work setting best supports that (examples shown here), and we now know how to plan team neighborhoods adjacencies that facilitate physical interaction, by using the collaboration mapping function.

So knowing who will be in, when, what they are doing and who they are collaborating with, we can start to create the workplace strategy and continue to develop team by team across the business.

Below is a sample of about 5% of the WEX Engagement tool dashboard output

hybrid data dashboard
hybrid data results
hybrind worksettings chart

As the vaccine in the Western world reaches over 75% of the population, and booster shots being distributed to deal with Omnicron, business leaders' attention is focused on how their employees will work in the future and what the impact will be for the business.

The remote working imposed by the pandemic has broken old, traditional habits, has changed management's opinion on how work could be done.  It has accelerated technology solutions that really facilitate a location independent way of working for many previously office-based employees.

The pandemic has created an ideal opportunity to create a way of working that allows employees choice and flexibility, that enables productivity, is efficient and helps a business attract and retain the best talent. The opportunity has never been more obvious than it is today.

Much has been said in the press that this location independence has enabled a new way of working, ‘Hybrid working’, will become the ‘new normal’ for businesses across the globe. Various definitions exist, but essentially means that employees have choice to access to a mix of work locations to perform their role, which is in effect a long-established approach known as ‘agile working’:

Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time, and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of place and of how you achieve it)

The Agile Organization

Technology has released employees from the chains of the traditional office desk or cubicle,  opening up a world of places to work: the office, home, business center, co-working spaces, and coffee shop. For employees and the business, it should be a frictionless experience.

Hybrid (agile) working is enabled in a workplace by applying Activity Based Working* design principles ensuring that the various tasks being undertaken are best supported. It is likely that most focus or general process tasks are best suited to remote working, whilst collaboration tasks, particular ideation, knowledge exchange, onboarding and learning are better supported and achieve improved outcomes by taking place face to face in a supportive workplace environment.

The most successful workplaces are those that allow employee choice and flexibility of hybrid working, whilst also re-engineering their processes and procedures.  

*Activity based working is a workplace model which offers employees the flexibility, choice, and autonomy to work in the best worksetting for a specific task. The workplace is designed around a range of work settings strategically placed throughout the floor to offer variety, ambience and the functionality required for a particular task, from informal and formal collaborative and open settings for team-based tasks, to focus booths or closed spaces for individual tasks and so on.

We use our deep dive WEX Engagement tool to simply and quickly capture and report all of this.

How do I develop my new workplace design?

To develop the most appropriate way of working and workplace design for your business there are some key steps to follow, each one supported by intentional communications.

1.  Employee Engagement. It is important to understand, at a granular level about employee preference across a whole range of metrics, including activities/tasks, locational, working setting and who they need to collaborate with and when and any technology needs as well as gaining insights on culture and social needs. Engage with team leaders in interviews to understand their preferences for their team, identifying challenges, opportunities and upcoming changes that need to be included.

2.  Worker Profiling. It helps to create typical employee ‘personas’ at this stage, ranging from whether they are a focus or collaborative style worker and capturing their level of locational preference (remote/in-office) so that you know how many people are in the office at any one time; it recognizes that ‘one size does not fit all’ and becomes a very useful tool for the change management and implementation process.  This process also has the significant advantage of forecasting how many people will being a building on a typical week. (Our WEX tool does this automatically)

3.  Workplace as a Venue. The workplace should be somewhere an employee wants to be, a hub of excitement, brand, culture and one that fosters creativity and inspires employees and provides a better and different workplace experience to working from home.

4.  Workplace Design. Your new way of working will be human centric and most likely require physical changes. The workplace now needs to include various work settings strategically placed to offer variety, ambience and functionality required for a particular task, from informal and formal collaborative and open settings for team-based tasks, to focus booths or closed spaces for individual tasks, videoconferencing, and one-on-ones. The workplace can no longer be a place of standard features, it needs to not only be functional but also an attractive place to work. From a design aspect, the move is towards more a ‘residentialized’ feel to the spaces, with softer less obviously corporate styling. Find out more about our workplace consulting services here

5.  Neighbourhood Strategy. When employees come into the office it is usually to collaborate, (focus work being successfully completed at home) they want a ‘home’ base that they can come back to, to be with their own co-workers. These neighbourhood spaces are shared with their team at the core, and as you move further from the core spaces, they are shared with surrounding teams, facilitating spontaneous interaction and collaboration.

6.  Formal Meeting Protocols. Many businesses find that for formal meetings which would previously have been held in a meeting room, that a “remote-first” strategy gives everyone equality of participation; not favouring an onsite group of employees in a meeting room.  It is a protocol where everyone joins the meeting from their own laptop, regardless of location. For those in the office that means providing small booths with good acoustic properties.

7.  Workplace Protocols/Neighbourhood Guide.  Employees need to be clear about how to use the new work settings, a simple ‘neighbourhood guide’ explains about the spaces and how they can be used. It also explains about safety in the workplace, and new features or technology that they may not be familiar with, like booking and entry systems. Allowing employees to make an informed choice of the work setting that is most effective for the task. This guide is best co-created in conjunction with team change champions.

8.  Human Resources. Most employee contracts stipulate a location (office building) for work along with core hours. These need to be reviewed when introducing Hybrid working to allow the level of desired flexibility. It is also the case that managing remote employees, or employees who are not in the same physical locations as their managers, can be challenging for traditional management culture. Managers will require support in changing their approach to output/outcome management, using clear objective setting as a solution. Businesses also need to be cautious that their managers are not giving preferential treatment in terms of career advancement and access to the best projects to those employees more frequently in the workplace than remote workers. New processes and policies that treat each fairly need to be created.

Need Some Tips for Implementation? Try these.

1. Change Management Many employees will be concerned about the change to what they had become used to and the transition to a new way of working. The sharing of worksettings may be new to them and needs to be handled carefully otherwise it can create stress and anxiety. The first rule of change is that those impacted want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ and this should be addressed early on. A comprehensive change program needs to be developed to engage from boardroom to front line, leadership skills, manager training and change champions to ensure embedded knowledge and success. This needs to be coordinated with a structured communications plan – contact us for a change route map to plan your activities. Learn more about our change management services here

2.  Pilot Project. Creating the right solution takes time and iterations. A pilot project can be defined as a single team, department, floor of a building, a building, or a geographic region of employees. A ‘bite sized’ approach to get you started. Initial ideas for workplace and technology interventions will be developed along with reviewing and identifying any changes required to employees’ contracts, guidelines, and procedures etc. Invite early adopters to occupy the pilot project spaces. Willing adopters are more likely to be supporters of change and provide constructive feedback. This approach will confirm viability and scalability and enable proposed designs, processes, and procedures to be tested. It will confirm the appropriateness and of any new tools proposed and any new working practices comply with statutory standards. It also enables the benefits to be tested and a more reliable investment appraisal to be created for the main project (see more on this below).

3.  Continual Development. The change journey is a continuum, and there will be a need to make changes and develop new solutions over time.  Businesses will need to continue to monitor performance and effectiveness of the new workplace design and protocols.  Technology can help with this along with periodic surveys and engagement with employees.

Why is a Pilot Project Important?

The pilot project can be defined as a single team, department, floor of a building, a building or a geographic region of employees. It commences with a  deep engagement program including employee experience and activity analysis survey, interviews at two levels of leadership, workshops and where appropriate observational studies.

Initial ideas for workplace and technology interventions will be developed along with reviewing and identifying any changes required to employees contracts, guidelines and procedures etc.

The pilot project will confirm viability and scalability and enable proposed designs, processes and procedures to be tested. It will confirm the appropriateness and of any new tools proposed and any new working practices comply with statutory standards. It also enables the benefits to be tested and a more reliable investment appraisal to be created for the main project.

With a pilot project there is generally a high degree of uncertainty and there needs to be recognition that the purpose of this stage is primarily to prove viability, not deliver an agreed outcome. There is a clear need for a control structure that allows for the potential for radical changes in scope and direction if required, as lessons are learned during the live  occupation/ implementation of the pilot project stage.

Deliverables would include:

· Workplace design interventions required for project,

· Technology changes

· HR Policy and processes requiring change

· Change Management Road Map

· Robust lessons learned, risks and issues logs,

· Benefits assessment,

· Viability report and recommendation,

· Route map for implementation,

· Revised investment appraisal and project plan.


  1. Lower costs

  2. Speed of Change

  3. Opportunity to trial new products

  4. Opportunity to trial new protocols

  5. Ease of iteration

  6. Psychologically safer place to make ‘mistakes’

  7. Test where, when and how employees work

The Return to Office Journey

Return to office plan

Why Should You Consider a Phased Implementation?

A phased approach to implementation benefits from continual learning and development of solutions, and also allows for regional variations due to compliance requirements, local customs and cultures. There should not be a rush or enforced re-occupation as this will risk employee dissatisfaction and talent leaving.

Phase 1 or Trial Phase

A trial is a small-scale implementation planned before the main rollout of the new way of working and return to the workplace. It enables the project team to test product supply chain, vendors, logistics, communications, stakeholder management plans and the effectiveness of any rollout tools. It can also enable deficiencies in project team briefing, training and skills to be ironed out before the main rollout begins.

Phase 1 may also include a number of temporary interventions across all workplaces as an interim solution addressing the new ways of working, until such time as roll out can be implemented in each location.

Phase 1 deliverables include

  1. A more accurate budget

  2. Refined plan for the main roll out

  3. Review of benefits in the light of practical rollout experience.


Subsequent Phasing

Subsequent phases can be implemented on a business needs basis.  For instance aligned to lease breaks, availability of capital, any merger or acquisition plans and / or scaled depending on the existing workplace design/ways of working in each location This means that  the work can be scaled appropriately across the real estate portfolio and employee base.

Depending on the nature of the solutions that emerge from the pilot project there maybe a broader real estate strategy piece (such as rationalization) that will influence the implementation roll out.

Want to know how we can guide you along the journey using our innovative WEX Engagement tool?