COVID-19 led to many restrictions, but in one major way it helped introduce more options: office workers now know they can work from anywhere. That new standard of workforce flexibility will remain, putting the onus on employers in a tight labor market to get their return to the office (RTO) strategy right. reached out to Colliers workforce experts Bret Swango, Keith Perske and Michelle Cleverdon to discuss the benefits and potential dangers in the new labor dynamics, how flexible work models and spaces will be integrated, and what’s next for office occupancy.

“This is the greatest supply-side risk facing knowledge worker-centric organizations in our lifetime,” said Swango, head of workforce analytics. “If an employer chooses to move forward with a strategy that withdraws the autonomy, flexibility and choice afforded over the last year, employees will look elsewhere for a workplace that better aligns with their needs.”

A confluence of factors has created the “perfect storm” that favors highly skilled workers and puts more pressure on employers planning RTO. Job openings are at all-time highs, the hyper-efficient flow of information provides transparency into employer policies and alternative opportunities, a disproportionately tech savvy labor pool is skilled at accessing such intelligence, and the advent of remote work has altered the competitive environment, shifting employment opportunities from local to global.

In response to these dynamics, many employers will favor the hybrid model, a blend of in-office and out-of-the-office work. The locational and time flexibility offered by hybrid solutions can be an attractor for diverse talent, particularly working parents.

“The question is how do you rationally and fairly decide who can do work virtually, how often and how are they supported at each location?” said Perske, head of Colliers’ Americas workplace advisory. “Those decisions need to be based on facts about function, manager’s ability and employees’ desire. Leaving one of those elements out of the decision process can lead to bad outcomes.”

A flex workplace or third option to an RTO strategy offers several advantages, including reduced commute times and increased access to work resources. Many companies are leveraging flex in a hub and spoke model to provide work locations in closer proximity to where employees live.

“There is also the idea of invigorating work by enabling choice with the ability to change up the work environment and the innovation factor behind bringing together different perspectives in a third environment, whether with colleagues or external networks,” said Cleverdon, vice president of workplace innovation. “Flex offers this by design and as a shared service.”

Flexibility is about performing different activities or interactions in different locations, but that balance is not a one size fits all thing. Cleverdon recommends that organizations should start with data, leveraging both quantitative and qualitative analysis to help capture specific metrics critical to business performance and the employee voice to help tailor the approach for different functions. Then it’s about being communicative, partnering across functions, and applying an iterative and continuous improvement mindset.

A well-structured, data-driven RTO method will also help against the unknowns that remain, such as the COVID-19 Delta variant. Two organizations Colliers is working with have already had to adjust their RTO plan and timing.

“This is all just one large cost-benefit analysis and right now the costs or risks far outweigh the benefits or rewards,” Swango said. “Sure, many managers would like to be back in person with their teams, but taking a misstep with RTO can be costly for talent retention and acquisition.”