18 Sep 2023

Back to the Office?

About 29 per cent of the UK working population has hybrid working arrangements and about 11 per cent are fully home-based. These figures appear to have stabilised over the last year and are driven by employee demand; according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 71 per cent of workers “view flexible working as important to them when considering a new role”.

The advantages of working flexibly are obvious. Commuting, which is costly and bad for the environment, is reduced. Employees are able to manipulate their working day to accommodate other demands on their time, such as childcare or looking after older parents, free from the multiple distractions of noisy, open-plan offices, and productivity and efficiency rises.

But, despite these well-rehearsed arguments, many employers are beginning to revisit their working arrangements and are insisting that employees should return to the office – usually for a minimum number of days (two or three). One reason for this initiative is the fact that many employers are finding it hard to recruit outstanding candidates for new roles, because they are searching in a pool of potential employees who have had very little office experience and who have not had the benefit of picking up skills and experience through a process of osmosis – simply being around more experienced colleagues in the office and observing how they behave. This informal ‘training’ is invaluable and should never be underrated; an individual who is working at home and only interacting with colleagues through video meetings is essentially isolated from office culture and office know-how.

Many recent graduates have never worked in an office. This is because they entered the job market during the Covid pandemic, started their jobs remotely and have since adhered to the home-working model. The result is that, while they are self-motivated and disciplined, they have very little experience of interacting with other people. They have never enjoyed casual encounters in the kitchen or by the water-cooler, have never participated in light-hearted badinage and gossip across the desks in an open-plan office, and have not joined in the camaraderie of shared lunches and after-work drinks. Working alone at home, despite its obvious benefits, has left them feeling adrift and anxious, especially as most of their day-to-day interactions are online or on social media (which can easily engender feelings of inadequacy). Without a sense of connection and belonging, which is fostered by day-to-day office interactions, these new workers are less likely to feel any sense of loyalty or attachment to their current employers and are more likely to move on quickly to new jobs.

The social awkwardness that can be brought on by long periods of isolated working can be crippling, especially for young people. It can impede their ability to interact smoothly with clients or colleagues, it can also impair their career progression ­ – being in an office where you can buttonhole your boss or team leader for some quick advice is a highly effective way of improving your skills and making your presence felt (compare the cumbersome, more formal, process of seeking advice through a remote video call). When you are surrounded by co-workers you can act spontaneously, bounce ideas off colleagues, enjoy impromptu discussions and exchange feedback. Freed from the formal constraints of organised meetings, or the scrutiny of the video screen, you can let rip, floating suggestions and canvassing your colleague’s opinions whenever you feel inspired. A stimulating working environment is much more easily nurtured when people are sharing a physical space and responding to facial expressions and body language as well as the spoken or written word.

Yet, despite these undoubted benefits, many employees are still baulking at the idea of being entirely office-based. They argue, quite understandably, that they are more productive at home because they find offices – with their clatter of half-heard conversations, comings and goings, endless meetings – distracting. When you have become used to the tranquillity of a controlled work environment at home, it is hard to adjust to the hurly-burly of a busy office.

Employers understand enticing employees back to the office might be something of an uphill struggle, and many are offering an ever-more enticing range of perks and inducements to make the prospect more seductive: free lunches, food discounts, free gym membership, language lessons, tax-free childcare and so on.

Clearly the working landscape has changed irrevocably, and we will never go back to the old inflexibility of the 9-5/five days a week model. The genie has been let out of the bottle and the current generation of office workers has tasted the freedom and flexibility of home-based working. The solution must be a compromise: hybrid working, where workers agree to be in the office for a minimum number of days, seems to offer the best solution. It means that employers can still enjoy the long-term benefits of having employees on-site, whilst employees can enjoy the undoubted benefits of the new-found flexibility. It is clear that if employers are unwilling or unable to provide a hybrid working option, they may well find their most talented workers are voting with their feet and are seeking less rigid working arrangements elsewhere.


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