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Returning to the office can be a choice, not a challenge

By applying behavioral science and choice architecture to the post-pandemic workplace, organizations can “nudge” employees to embrace flexible work, avoiding mandates altogether.
Phil Kirschner

Advises executive leadership teams on future, post-pandemic workplace strategies, including the leadership behaviors and change management systems necessary to minimize resistance and accelerate adoption of new ways of working

Julia Sperling-Magro

Serves private- and public-sector clients on large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening performance and health through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the daily decision about where and how to work wasn’t complicated for most. Workers commuted to an office, sat in assigned seats near direct colleagues, and held big meetings in Conference Room A.

Our relationship with work and the office has been irrevocably disrupted. The vast majority of employees want flexible work—a preference even more universal among traditionally underrepresented groups, such as employees with disabilities, Black employees, and LGBQ+* employees. In response, many employers are downsizing offices and implementing desk-sharing schemes.

The downside of a hybrid work model is determining where, when, and why to co-locate with colleagues or clients, and even where to sit upon arrival. This uncertainty can cause decision fatigue, prompting employees to fall back on familiar patterns to avoid the hassle. Many employers try to avoid this complexity by mandating office presence, but there’s a better way.

How the behavioral science of nudges can help employees choose

A thoughtful, transparent, and data-driven approach to designing workplace and workday options simplifies employees’ choices, making it easier to spend the right moments together.

This includes “nudging”—the practice of helping people make the best choice by designing the options in a way that influences, but doesn’t restrict, the outcome. Small design changes, called “choice architecture,” have a big role to play in enabling informed decisions. For example, calendar and/or resource booking data can be used to notify employees when their colleagues are statistically likely to be in the office. The magnetic presence of collaborators and friends could inspire someone to make the commute.

By following these three steps, organizations can make small changes that help their workforce understand the redefined purpose of the office and realize the true benefits of flexible work.

  1. Identify the moments that matter
    Determine when it truly matters to be together based on data, experimentation, and feedback, not just instinct and assumptions. Most organizations have a variety of existing resources on hand to help shape an informed perspective. For example, analyze sales performance against cadence of hosting prospects in the office. Correlate engagement scores against participation in different types of internal events. Use learnings to verify what’s working and what’s not, then intentionally plan around the moments that matter and refine guidance for employees accordingly.
  2. Design nudges around these moments
    After identifying activities where purposeful presence matters most, design prompts that encourage participation while empowering employees to choose. For example, if attending a weekly “lunch and learn” has a proven impact on connection to the organization:
    • Employees who have not attended recently could be nudged about upcoming topics.
    • Leaders could be encouraged to schedule feedback sessions on the same day if recent hires are attending in person.
    • Remote workers not traveling to the office could be presented with the option to join virtually—potentially even from a local coworking site alongside colleagues who live nearby, offering networking and collaboration opportunities.

    While employees retain the choice about where and how to participate, this strategy can serve as a gentle nudge to return to the office when it matters.

  3. Test, refine, and automate.
    Once a base choice architecture is established—where employees are given options that support their autonomy and performance—test it out across the organization. Regularly refine the approach based on employees’ feedback and evolving needs. For example, if feedback reveals new employees prefer a hybrid approach to onboarding programs, consider implementing e-learning modules for the basics, paired with a more social-oriented, in-office component to foster connections. Also, consider how technology can streamline or supplement. Over time, AI systems can automate nudges at scale, and even help identify teams whose work profiles suggest they might benefit from the on-site patterns and collaborative tools adopted by other departments.

Flexibility introduced more complexity to workplace choices. The questions of when, where, and how to work now have more dimension than we ever imagined. Yet, we can use insights from data to design and refine nudges that encourage beneficial behaviors. This way, organizations can help turn employee confusion into clarity and maximize the benefits of flexible work—without resorting to ineffective, disengaging mandates.

The authors wish to thank Timothy Bromley, Roberta Fusaro, and Dani Lucas for their contributions to this post.

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* In the referenced survey, we intended to avoid conflating gender identity and sexual orientation. Transgender respondents were included in the gender identity analyses, and we used the updated acronym LGBQ+ for the sexual orientation analyses. In our sample, this group included respondents who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and asexual.

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