With the rise of the pandemic, remote work became unchartered territory for many companies, says Cathy Acratopulo.

Then, as the pandemic subsided, a ‘flexible’ approach allowed employees to choose what worked best for them.

However, in today’s ‘optimisation’ phase, businesses face the financial impact of unused office spaces and the long-term effects on productivity, learning and innovation from remote work. The practicality of sustaining an employee-driven approach is becoming apparent, and as a result, companies are increasingly adopting a stricter stance on returning to the office.

As the growing trend takes over the headlines, many are asking – is it beneficial or detrimental to a business? More importantly, can it be implemented without alienating the workforce?

The change in the power balance

For some time now, employees have had the power to decide how often they work from the office. The risk of losing staff to competitors offering more flexibility has been significant, especially when finding replacement talent has been challenging. It has meant, of course, that employees held the upper hand, not least when the government changed the rules and permitted them to request flexible working from their first day.

However, as we move on, the benefits of in-person collaboration at work have become apparent for both employers and employees. In addition, there is an expectation from leaders for managers to be visible on the floor, teach and advise and always be accessible for immediate feedback and impromptu meetings. Achieving this from a home office is a challenge.

For junior or newer employees, there is considerable value in spending time with colleagues in person – for learning, coaching and socialising purposes. A remote onboarding experience can feel underwhelming and disappointing, especially when trying to build work relationships in a new setting and immerse themselves in an organisation’s culture.

Interestingly, some of these arguments might become irrelevant. Labour is proposing that flexible working, including working from home, becomes the default option, and employers will need to demonstrate why it isn’t reasonably feasible. As productivity for Q1 2023 declined by 1.4% compared to the previous quarter, matching the same level as before the pandemic in Q4 2019, additional legislation giving more power to employees to work flexibly is likely to face resistance from businesses. In our view, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving the right balance with hybrid working: organisations have different needs, and a blanket legislative approach will only create more problems.

While the ongoing strength of the employment market may not be shifting the employee/employer power balance just yet, there is growing acknowledgement that spending time in the office each week benefits employees, their leaders and, ultimately, the bottom line.

However, should the extent of required office presence be mandated? As more businesses answer affirmatively, there will be fewer opportunities for those who dislike the lack of choice to find a more flexible workplace. And with information spreading quickly through social media and online platforms, negative headlines can damage a company’s image and affect its ability to attract and retain talent. With employees using external platforms such as Glassdoor to express their dissatisfaction, it can ultimately become a barrier to attracting new talent.

Leaders should set the example

While senior leaders might feel they can work effectively from home for most of their week, they need to understand that people early in their careers need regular, in-person interactions with their peers and leaders to learn socially, receive structured and spontaneous coaching, and grow in their roles. Practising what you preach is essential.

Indeed, there are significant cultural and engagement reasons for leaders to set the tone and return to the workplace. Beyond the office versus remote work paradigm, leading by example is a powerful way to unite teams and create an environment of shared purpose. Levelling the playing field also fosters more open dialogue between employees and line managers and, importantly, gives staff at all levels a chance to learn from more experienced colleagues.

It is difficult to utilise the power of ‘floor walking’ remotely. Many leaders will have mightily missed the ability to do this to get a feel for the atmosphere and gather feedback from teams. It’ll be a welcome relief, then, to get much quicker feedback, particularly informally, on-site.

Creating a fantastic office experience

Understandably, working from home brings many benefits for employees – avoiding a crowded and costly commute, using breaks to manage personal tasks and fitting more into any given day. It also improves work accessibility for those who struggle in an office environment, such as those with disabilities or caregiving responsibilities.

Whether the return to work is mandated or not, leaders need to reconsider the purpose of the office and ensure a positive experience so that employees feel drawn to be there, even if they are pushed to attend.

For example, providing a reliable technology infrastructure with ultra-fast Wi-Fi and high-quality hardware like monitors and keyboards is a good option. Or offering welcoming communal spaces for collaborative work and providing rooms for quiet meetings like making client calls is ideal. Employees need to experience innovation, enjoyment and coaching – all potentials when co-located with peers and leaders. A commute may always be an issue, but if the workplace experience is better, then even that can be acceptable.

Another interesting way of looking at it is that employees who’ve never had a choice about their work location, say those in the retail, hospitality or manufacturing sectors, may view this growing trend as a positive change. Some organisations, such as international financial services, might have valid business reasons. It is understandable that leaders in these sectors – who have had to balance the needs of a workforce divided between remote and on-site workers – have decided it’s time for a change. So, while it’s evident that the situation is altering, the challenge lies in finding the right balance in terms of time spent in the office and whether it should be mandated or encouraged.

Ultimately, the management of this will vary from organisation to organisation, depending on business imperatives and cultural styles. What is essential for all is clear communication and transparency. Employees who feel forced to return to the office without a clear explanation of the reasons and benefits are unlikely to embrace the change. Those, however, who are presented with a business challenge and a request for their feedback on the best way to address it could help reach an informed consensus and ensure wins for both employee and the employer.

There is no denying that this is a delicate balance. Working with both the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors can help ensure individuals understand the value it creates for them, their teams and their employer.

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Cathy Acratopulo is the Co-Managing Director at LACE Partners.

 

 

 

 

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Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.