Organizations have been forced to make significant decisions over the past two years with COVID-19 fundamentally changing the way we live and work. Rules of engagement (and employment) are also consistently evolving, and a variety of factors are impacting employees’ interest in on-site work.

Return-to-work programs are being unevenly ideated and implemented. A combination of financial incentives, child-care benefits, and other types of worker assistance may be necessary to encourage and enforce in-person, full-time work. Every employer should approach this suite of benefits with great care and a deliberate process.

Allowing too many options for work arrangements may be concerning, difficult to manage, or simply impossible if in-person operations are required in your circumstances. With schools being the first to require in-person returns in many areas, we are learning a lot about the benefits of returning to in-person activities. Kids all over the country are returning to classrooms, recess, high school football games, and homecoming.

Taking a cue from some local schools, we outline below five incentives to encourage an in-person workforce:

  1. Remove the stigma of social contact.
  2. Encourage recreation during and after work.
  3. Provide free meals and/or transportation.
  4. Support mental health in and out of the workplace.
  5. Establish clear expectations and programming for employee behavior.

five return to work incentives

1. Remove the Stigma

With required in-person operations, students, parents, and teachers had to quickly become comfortable with human interaction again. Instead of seeking out social activity, we evolved to limit social activity and felt a greater sense of security in the confines of our homes and immediate family groups. As one New York Times headline declared: We’re All Socially Awkward Now.

Required return plans prompted students to become comfortable interacting in large groups on a daily basis. As much as they could, they developed a redefined sense of security in social settings. Over time, the benefits of sustained interaction for educational purposes may outweigh the fear of illness.

Employer Action: Model Return-to-Work Programs After Educational Institutions

The lesson here is that if employers must start somewhere, modeling a return-to-work program after schools, universities, and even daycare centers may be a good baseline. This must include establishing expectations for safety and behavior, as we address below.

Data indicates that returning to routine social interaction can be daunting for many people, and that practice can help. Social skills can atrophy when not in use – just like muscles, based on a 2020 study of isolated populations like prisoners, astronauts, and soldiers.

And when social skills go unused for long periods of time, the result is social anxiety and awkwardness.

Returning to work and a regular routine can help with the re-entry process that we will all inevitably have to experience on some level post-pandemic.

modeling return to work incentives from school reopenings

2. Encourage Recreation

The lifeline for many kids returning to school is the experience of routine recreation. This can include team sports, theater, clubs, and even recess. Setting aside time to play can create a wonderful environment for allowing in-person activity in a setting that feels safe and comfortable.

Employers can similarly look for ways to introduce safe and healthy recreation either into the workday or in outside-of-work settings for teams that may be easing into in-person operations.

Employer Action: Make Recreational Activities Part of the Office Routine

Daily recreation can take the form of many activities, such as walking meetings, lunchtime recreational sports, affinity groups that meet routinely, or friendly craft competitions. For employers that may have a more extended timeline for requiring in-person operations, recreational activities can act as a great opportunity to get employees accustomed to interaction with one another again before inviting the team back into the office environment.

A 2021 survey found that 39% of workers would rather quit their jobs than be forced back into the office full time. Employers can only push so much.

Infusing ongoing recreation activities into the office routine, though, will help support a workforce and a culture that values in-person collaboration. Greater cross-pollination of ideas as a result of more interaction can also help in the form of teamwork, cohesion, and efficiency during complex group projects, like digital transformation efforts.

3. Provide Free Meals and/or Transportation

In some locales, schools are working to reduce barriers to in-person education. Providing free meals and easily accessible transportation has allowed many kids who may have had natural barriers to returning to school an opportunity to engage in person.

Employer Action: Invest in Daily, Tangible Work Benefits

Employers can and should assess their transportation reimbursement programs. Removing or limiting the financial burden of commuting by, for example, providing pre-tax transportation benefits, is a direct, tangible organizational action with real financial consequences to employees, which might be another work bonus employees consider meaningful.

Another creative solution is to provide a free meal service. “We’re seeing companies shift their use of food as a perk, to a way to keep employees safe,” said Sara Nash, a public relations manager for a Boston catering company, according to TechRepublic. “Some are having meals delivered twice a day to keep employees from having to leave the office and wait in long elevator lines and crowded restaurants.”

As an indirect cash incentive, expanded meal options are another tool at your disposal.

4. Support Mental Health

Many school programs have increased their mental health services in anticipation of kids struggling to re-integrate to consistent social engagement. Employers can reach the same conclusion and work with their insurance providers on more robust mental health offerings.

Employer Action: Offer Expanded Mental Health Services

Employers can take a variety of approaches to support their employees’ mental health.

  1. Execute a communication campaign to remind employees of benefits that are already in place, such as the employee assistance programs that many policies provide but employees often overlook.
  2. Invest in a more holistic wellness program with additional employee assistance programming, which could include external coaching, counseling, and access to a library of preferred mental health providers.
  3. Increase coverage for mental health counseling and other alternative care options such as acupuncture, massage, and reflexology when re-negotiating benefits coverage.
  4. Explore covering other benefits that support mental health, such as reimbursement for fitness club membership.

Enhanced benefits for each eligible employee can make the job more than just a job – but a lifeline to much-needed services during challenging times.

5. Establish Clear Expectations and Programming

Schools have worked hard to set clear expectations around handling concerns related to the spread of COVID-19. These expectations are coupled with firm guidelines on:

  • When a student or teacher should stay home.
  • What protocols are immediately activated.
  • What requirements sick individuals must meet to return safely (e.g., negative PCR test).

Additionally, many schools have provided both testing and vaccinations on-site.

Employer Action: Create a Framework and Taskforce for Employee Health and Safety

For employees to feel safe to return, employers must create and communicate very clear expectations for employee behavior, reporting, and attestation so that there is confidence the organization prioritizes employee health and safety.

The easiest approach for building this trust is for employers to follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC in a consistent manner. Employers can also establish a standing task force or hire a team within an operations department to manage employee health and safety related to return to work.

clear expectations around return to work incentives

Finding the Balance as an Employer

At this point in the pandemic, businesses in some sectors have already decided, or are in the final stages of deciding, on their return-to-work plans. For employees and employers alike, it has been a disruptive process.

What approach will best meet business needs while also providing employees with the support needed to accommodate a variety of unique personal situations? Threading this needle has proven a challenge.

Additionally, there is a lot of apprehension around requiring in-person returns due to fear of losing critical talent or risking the spread of the virus. A 2021 survey found that 39% of workers would rather quit their jobs than be forced back into the office full time. For Millennial and Gen Z workers, the figures are even higher – nearly 50%. Employers can only push so much.

Will in-person work look and feel different after the pandemic?


But just as schools have shown us, many organizations will rebuild operations in new and creative ways that will undoubtedly incentivize employees’ interest in on-site participation.

To work through a plan together, contact a Human Capital Transformation expert at CrossCountry Consulting today.