Why you shouldn’t talk about “returning to work”

Asking employees to return to the office is a delicate situation.

Employees who want to continue working remotely have options now, meaning you have to be careful in how you approach asking them to come to the office.

That includes being intentional with the specific language you use.

Language matters 

“Return to work” implies that people haven’t been working for the past two years, which is not the case. 

People have been working. 

Talking about returning to the office as “returning to work” can be read as dismissive or unappreciative of this fact.

Instead, opt for “return to office.” It’s more accurate and more neutral, which means you’re less likely to raise eyebrows — or tempers.  

Why it matters

Not only have your employees been working, but they’ve been:

  • Working in the middle of a historic pandemic
  • While balancing family responsibilities
  • Making do in ad-hoc ‘offices’
  • All while fighting the emotional rollercoaster of social distancing, sickness, and more

You don’t want your employees to read you as cavalier or unappreciative, particularly in light of the Great Resignation and the rise of the antiwork movement. 

Feeling disrespected at work is one of the top three reasons for resignations in 2021 in a recent Pew survey. 

Feeling disrespected at work is one of the top three reasons for resignations in 2021.

Pew Research Center

The power of semantics

Not everyone understands the controversy of using “return to work” vs “return to office.” Below, we outline a few other phrases to clarify the issue. 

Problem vs. challenge/opportunity

This example is fairly common in the business world. The word “problem” (often viewed as negative, a roadblock) is often replaced by more positive words like “challenge” and “opportunity.”

Boss vs. leader 

In recent decades, the word “boss” has become unfashionable. Many people believe it emphasizes one’s power over an employee. Words like “leader” (overtly positive) or specific titles like “CEO” (neutral) imply greater organizational equality and are likely better for morale.

Empower vs. amplify 

At first glance, the word “empower” seems innocuous enough — positive, even. However, in some contexts, it can be read as suggesting that the person doing the “empowering” is more important than the person or group being assisted. 

On the other hand, talking about “amplifying” someone’s voice suggests that the person or group has agency and is quite capable of “empowering” themselves — the ally is simply giving them a loudspeaker so their voice can reach more people. 

How to talk about the return to office with empathy

Communicating with empathy really comes down to one core concept: Treat your employees the way you would want to be treated if you were in their position.

Here are some tips: 

  • Be thoughtful and deliberate about your language.  
  • Acknowledge the challenges of the past two years. 
  • Thank employees for their hard work in the face of these difficulties.
  • Acknowledge that some employees have become accustomed to working remotely and might prefer it.
  • Be transparent about your reasons for wanting to return to the office environment.
  • Avoid implying that a return to the office is about increasing productivity or policing employee time management.
  • Acknowledge that the danger of Covid has not entirely passed and mention precautions the company will be taking to continue to protect immunocompromised individuals.
  • Invite employees to reach out if they foresee difficulties transitioning back to the office environment so you can explore solutions together.
  • Focus on the actual benefits of the office environment: the ease of collaboration, exposure to different perspectives, the career benefits, the opportunity for social interaction, etc.

For ideas on how to align your workplace with employees’ priorities, read 5 ways to make returning to the office appealing.