HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Return to Office (RTO)

Reopening the doors to the physical workplace can be intimidating. Factoring in each employee and their needs can make it darn near overwhelming. Take a simplified look at how to return to the office in this quick read.

What Does It Mean to Return to Office?

The term “Return to office” refers to instances when employees were away from their physical workplace and are now returning. It can encompass situations where the entire workforce was out of the office or when individuals are coming back to the office after a period of absence. However, this term typically refers to the latter scenario when all or most of the workforce returns to the physical workplace after a period of remote work or temporary closure. The concept of returning to the office became particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic when many companies and organizations implemented remote work policies to ensure employee safety and comply with social distancing measures.

What Is a Return to Office (RTO) Plan?

An RTO plan is precisely that: a plan for moving employees back into the physical work environment after a period of absence. It includes strategies, a timeline and guidelines to ensure an orderly and smooth transition.

Why It’s Important to Have an Effective Return to Office Plan

When employees return to the physical office after a time of absence or working remotely, there are many things to consider. As with every change, there’s the potential for loss of productivity as well as need for additional employee support. A comprehensive RTO plan will address each potential issue that may arise and mitigate any potential risks.
  • Health and safety. Specifically in instances where a workplace was closed due to health and safety concerns, a section of the RTO should cover any protocols to be implemented as people return to the workplace. This includes things such as social distancing guidelines, wearing masks, hand hygiene and sanitization procedures.
  • Communication. Moving from working fully remotely to being back in the office opens the workplace up to potential social issues and conflicts that may not have been possible in the remote setting. When an RTO plan is put into place, measures for improving communication and easing the transition back to working face-to-face can help ease social stress while also providing tools for conflict resolution and effective communication.
  • Loss of productivity. Between social and communication changes, differences in environment and technological challenges, loss of productivity is inevitable. However, this can be anticipated and managed in the RTO plan. The smoother the transition back into the workplace, the less potential there is for loss of productivity.
  • Employee support. To lower stress and promote well-being during this potentially challenging transition, an RTO plan may include provisions for additional support. This could include resources for mental health, flexible work arrangements and accommodations for those with special needs or concerns.

Return to Office Models to Consider

When shifting employees back to working in the office, it is important to carefully consider the specific needs of your organization. Consider employee preferences, requirements of each position, local regulations, environmental limitations and size of the workforce when selecting a model to follow. In some instances (such as with a small staff and minimal special requirements), it may make sense to implement a full return. In other more complex instances, looking into alternatives may be a better fit. With that in mind, here’s a deeper dive into other effective models.

Full Return

This is exactly what it sounds like: a full return to normalcy, where things return to their pre-shutdown (or pre-remote) state. Here, employees return to the office and resume their previous work schedule and duties. They are expected to be present in the office during regular work hours with minimal loss of productivity.


A combination of both in office and remote work, a hybrid arrangement offers a balance between structure and freedom. Employees split their time between working remotely and working in the office. This can be done in a number of ways to best suit the needs of the employees, such as certain days of the week set as “in office” or “at home” days, or alternating weeks between in-office and remote work.

Voluntary or Flexible

Some companies find allowing employees to choose whether they want to return to the office or continue working remotely to be an effective model with potential to increase engagement and company loyalty. This model allows for accommodation of individual preferences and circumstances while ensuring that any essential in-person work can still be carried out.


The goal of this model is to have only half of the employee population in office at any given time. This can be done in several ways. Some forms include having a staggered schedule when employees work in the office during different shifts, or days with departmental or team rotations when one team works in the office for a certain period (e.g., one week) while another team works remotely, and then they switch. This minimizes any potential for overcrowding while maintaining social distancing protocols.

Project-Based and Task-Based

In this model, employees return to the office only when their physical presence is required for the task at hand. This is determined on a task-by-task basis and offers the flexibility to work remotely when the employee’s presence in the office is not required.

How to Create a Return to Office Plan

The specific elements of your RTO plan will depend on the unique needs of your organization, the context of the RTO and local regulations. The best RTO plans are not all-encompassing, but have room for adaptability to remain responsive to evolving circumstances. With this in mind, here’s an overview to guide you in creating an RTO Plan to best suit your workplace.

Step 1: Do a Full Readiness Assessment

Evaluate the situation. Depending on the reason for the initial emptying of the workplace, you may need to stay up to date with any government mandates. Consider the physical environment and the number of employees. If you’re working with a large, multi-departmental group of employees, it may be wise to create an RTO board of department heads and poll employees to get a general feel for the readiness of the staff to return to office. Using this information, brainstorm any risks or challenges including employee health and wellbeing during the transition to plan accordingly.

Step 2: Select an RTO Model

With information gathered and special circumstances considered, determine an RTO model that will work best for your organization. If you’ve created an RTO board with department heads, getting their input is a great idea for the model to fully accommodate the needs of each department.

Step 3: Determine Policies and Procedures

Once a model has been adopted, determine what policies, resources and procedures may assist with the transition. This could include things such as employee wellness assessments and resources, health and safety protocols, employee training, a communication plan, employee counseling and support, and a workplace readiness plan to prepare the environment. Ultimately, the policies and procedures you adopt will depend on your unique organizational needs. Once again, this is another instance where an RTO board can be very beneficial to ensure there are no loose ends.

Step 4: Determine the Date and Conduct Follow-Up Measures

Once the RTO plan is well thought out and thorough with a model, policies, procedures and employee resources, it’s time to select the RTO date. Be sure to communicate expectations to employees clearly and concisely. An all-hands virtual meeting is a great way to do this, and include an open Q&A at the conclusion. Once the RTO has been initiated, follow up through employee polls, one-on-one meetings with staff and RTO board meetings. Be prepared to adjust the RTO plan as needed.

Best Practices for Transitioning Back to the Office

As mentioned before, adaptability is key. These best practices will help you remain well-informed and quick to evolve with any changing circumstances.

Stay Up-to-Date on Regulations and Compliance Requirements

Depending on the circumstances that required vacating the workplace, it may be necessary to stay on top of rapidly changing government and local mandates for the workplace. Ensure you’re well-informed and make any required changes promptly. Action Step: Create a regularly recurring reminder on your calendar to check the website for your local health department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO) for the latest guidelines and recommendations related to workplace health and safety. The frequency of this reminder may differ from industry to industry but a good rule of thumb is to check once a week.

Prioritize Health and Safety

Follow any and all guidelines and recommendations from health authorities as applicable. Regularly conduct workplace safety and employee wellbeing assessments to help ensure that you’re well-informed about the state of the environment and staff in order to present resources and solutions before a problem arises. Be sure to have resources for employee wellbeing, including mental health and support, and ensure they are communicated well and easily accessible. Action step: Book an OSHA or independent health and safety expert to do a walk through assessment of the workplace or provide lunch and learn training.

Practice Transparency

Have several open channels of communication to ensure everyone is well-informed and up-to-date. When communicating to employees, include specifics such as timelines, expectations, health and safety protocols and changes to policies and procedures. It’s also wise to be up front with employee concerns, addressing them promptly and openly. Action step: Create an online open forum where you can post updates and employees can communicate concerns that will be promptly and openly addressed.

Foster Collaboration and Reconnection

Plan activities and resources to aid with the social aspect of returning to a physical work environment. Introduce programs or events that incentivise team-building, collaboration and general reconnection with one another. Action step: Construct or review your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to ensure needs are being met and resources are communicated well and easily accessible.
Kayla Farber

Kayla Farber

Kayla is the Chief Innovation Officer at Hero Culture, where the passion is to create company cultures of retention using the power of personality.
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