Why a Return to the Office Full Time Could Spell Disaster for Employers!

busy office with staff at work

by Clinton Donkin, Commercial Director with Brightwater. Public Practice & Taxation division. 

After over 2 years of WFH or a stop-start hybrid model, organisations are keen to get their employees back to the office. Over the summer, there’s been a gradual return to working in offices but for the most part, it’s still been very much a trial run with 2 or 3 days in the office being the norm. Now some employers are looking at implementing a mandatory 5-day presence in the office but is this strategy going to backfire on them?

A recent poll I carried out on LinkedIn posed the question, “What would you do if your employer asked you to return to the office 5 days a week with no WFH flexibility? Nearly 60% of respondents said that they’d get a new job while 25% said they would think about it. The world of work has completely changed; it was already adapting to new requirements prior to the pandemic as people began to focus on employee well-being but the global pandemic only served to accelerate this massive change. People are no longer prepared to have all the terms on the employer’s side and in a candidate-short market across many professions, employers are running the risk of losing valuable employees if they’re not at least prepared to offer some flexibility.

So what are the real reasons behind employers’ requirements to return to the office full-time?

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(1)    Workplace culture

Returning to the office in some form or another does have its merits in terms of building a team culture. But on the other hand, so does being able and willing to respond to your employee’s needs. More often than not, it’s the older generation that doesn’t want to return to the office full-time or at all while the younger generation just want flexibility on the issue. A positive working environment that responds to market demands is going to make the company an employer of choice and help develop an equally positive company culture. Requiring a full-time in-office presence will make it very difficult for employers to attract and retain key talent. The first question we are asked as recruiters when talking with candidates, is “do they offer remote or hybrid working”? More often than not, if the answer is no, then their answer is no, too!

(2)    Long-term productivity

Any argument about productivity being affected by WFH policies lost its effectiveness once whole nations were in lockdown and everyone was forced to work from home. In very many cases, productivity went up as people were eager to prove that they could still contribute to the organisation’s bottom line.

Research by a Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom estimated that working from home during the pandemic increased productivity as much as 5%, mostly from avoiding any long commutes or by having quiet time to focus. However, being in the office still for at least a minimum number of days a week remains the best way to foster creativity and collaboration while happy employees, satisfied with a better work-life balance are always going to be more productive.

(3)    Mentoring & Training

As a graduate starting out in the workplace, being in the office fosters a sense of belonging, as well as promoting an environment of learning and collaboration along with building culture and camaraderie. Friday night drinks, getting involved in team projects, brainstorming sessions, being able to interact with senior staff and learn from them are all critical steps in career progression, internal promotions and building staff loyalty. Losing out on that will be detrimental to both employee and employer. But is returning full-time to the office the answer to that?

Most companies think not – with the advent of technology, virtual training is one way of keeping track of knowledge gained so the need for an in-person attendance is not critical there. It’s more the learning by osmosis that people are missing out on. This, however, can be managed by offering hybrid working where learning on-site can still be done 2 or 3 days a week.

What employers should consider

We’re in a talent critical market. Regardless of any talk of economic dips, Ireland still is experiencing a shortage of talent across many sectors, so organisations are having to become more competitive than ever in the war for talent, particularly in niche roles such as compliance, tax, technology and procurement. Being able to offer hybrid, blended or remote working is going to automatically place an employer on the contender list. Not offering it or refusing to offer any flexibility on the issue is going to have the opposite effect.

As employers gear up for what could be a difficult winter (future viral outbreaks, energy costs rising and the very real chance of oil and gas shortages), it makes no sense not to be as flexible as possible on working models for employees. How we work is always evolving. Advances in technology and rolling out of broadband to the most rural of areas has enabled working from home and has changed what the ideal working arrangement is. However, there needs to be compromises on both sides, employer and staff, to make this work for everyone.