How's the Great Resignation going for you? I've talked casually with a few business owners recently who say they think they want employees to return to the office, but they haven't brought it up for fear of triggering a stampede for the exits.

That prompted me to reach out to other leaders who say they've successfully, more or less, enticed workers to return. I wanted to know:

  • How did you phrase it? What words did you use?
  • What concerns did you hear over and over? 
  • Were there any especially effective arguments you found to convince people to return?

There can be good reasons to prefer a remote work arrangement. But you know your business and your employees better than anyone else. So if you've decided that remote work forever isn't your way forward, here are a few persuasion strategies that appear to have worked for other businesses and entrepreneurs. 

The business necessity argument

Prior to the pandemic, I'd already written quite a lot about remote work. One challenge we faced back then was a lack of data. 

It was difficult to find large groups of people who were doing similar jobs, among whom some worked from home while others worked in an office. 

As a result, a very small number of studies -- a Harvard study about patent examiners, for example, and a Stanford study involving travel agents -- got a lot of attention.

To put it lightly, it's no longer hard to find case studies.

Among the things we've learned is that there's no uniform answer regarding whether people have in fact been happier or more productive at home -- or whether what works for one business might work for another.

So the easiest thing might be simply to level with employees on how it's affected your business.

For example, Olivia Tan runs a SAAS company called Cocofax with 20 employees. When the pandemic began, she sent everyone home. But she told me that she found over time that it was a business necessity to have everyone return to the office. 

"Some of my employees didn't fully understand their tasks while being at home," she says, adding that those of her employees who had children at home "suffered some loss in productivity. Within two months, all of these challenges took a toll on our bottom line."

With the exception of one worker who is expecting a baby, Tan says, everyone agreed to return when she asked. (That worker is now on maternity leave.)

Thomas Jepsen, CEO of Passion Plans, had a similar issue, but he puts it more bluntly:

"We're frankly tired of having kids show up during Zoom meetings. As cute as they are, they interrupt the flow, [which is] why we decided to take the stance of requiring people return to the office."

Out of 22 total employees, 19 agreed to come back. He is requiring employees to be vaccinated, Jepsen says, and giving them $1,500 spa vouchers as a thank you.

As for the employees who say they don't want to return?

"We're in the process of figuring out firing the remaining three -- whether it would leave us exposed legally," he says. "They've also been told that they will need to make up their minds before September 1." 

The equity and fairness argument

Here's a challenge I hadn't anticipated, but perhaps should have. 

What do you do if you try to be an accommodating boss by letting people decide whether to work from home or not, only to find that the decision creates divisiveness?

That's what Jamie Hickey, the founder of  Coffee Semantics, a Web design firm focusing on coffee houses, told me.

All of 12 employees have been working from home since March 17, 2020. But in April, Hickey says, he told them they would have a choice between returning to the office or continuing to work remotely.

The result? A worst-case scenario, in fact: Seven decided to return, while another five said they wanted to continue staying home. As a result, nobody was happy.

"There has been drama," he told me. "This has led me to making the decision to bring everyone back into the office starting August 2."

Of the five who had wanted to continue working from home, three returned "without a problem," after Hickey changed the rules to require everyone to return. A fourth took some time to decide, but ultimately made the choice to return. 

As for the last one, he says, "I met with [that employee] for lunch and decided that it was best if they found employment somewhere else."

The health and science argument

Separate from the question of whether employees would rather work from home, much of the immediate medical need to do so now seems to be less of an issue. 

Amy Baxter is the CEO and chief medical officer of medical device company Pain Care Labs. Her office never actually closed during the pandemic; while she allowed anyone who wanted to work remotely, she says she also allowed up to three employees to work out of the company's 1,400-square-foot loft.

"I was always here, so everyone else rotated when they needed a 'get out of house' break," she said. "All of our team but one member has children, so being trapped at home wasn't always a benefit."

Baxter, who is a medical doctor, said she got air purifiers for each level of the office, along with nasal irrigation equipment, adding that nobody on her staff or any family members got Covid, and everyone is now vaccinated. 

In May, having realized that "when everyone is in the same place, decisions and creative things happen, [and that for] an eight-member team, proximity is creativity and community," she asked everyone to return to the office at least 20 hours per week.

"Multiple team members made a point of thanking me for the in-person requirements," she says, "not realizing how much happier it made them to feel productive and connected again."