Aflac CHRO: ‘Be reasonable’ about return to work

CHICAGO — For Aflac, a successful return-to-office plan involved flexibility. 

Leaders knew that after three years of remote work, a call back to the office would be met with some resistance, Jeri Hawthorne, the company’s chief human resources officer, told HR Dive Tuesday at the Reuters Workforce Health conference in Chicago. 

And there were emails complaining about the change. But ultimately, only about 2% of workers chose to leave over the mandate, far from the “mass exodus” leaders feared could happen. 

“There was this concern: Would 15% of our workforce just decide to walk away?” Hawthorne said. “They haven’t.” 

She attributes that to the approach the company took in rolling out its RTO policy. Leaders started communicating the change months before it went into effect, hoping to give workers time to arrange caregivers and pet sitters. Aflac also made the policy universal for workers in certain roles and locations. 

“We based it on the job and not the individual,” said Hawthorne. That made it easier to enforce because certain workers weren’t getting special treatment, she said. And the message came from the top down that a return to the office would help improve company culture. 

The company also surveyed workers multiple times and took their preferences into account when deciding how to develop the return-to-work policy. But, Hawthorne warned, if you ask for employee feedback, you need to clearly explain what you did with that insight to avoid disillusionment. 

“If you’re deviating from what they want, explain the rationale very clearly,” Hawthorne said. 

And, above all, Alfac chose to be flexible about how it implemented its policy. At first, the company required workers to come into the office three set days per week but, after feedback, revised that to a more fluid 60% of the week, Hawthorne said. She advised managers to “be reasonable” in implementing the policy and give workers flexibility.