Will a 'five-day office week' really become the norm again?

After a think tank predicted a return to full-time office working within two years, People Management asked HR practitioners whether it could – and should – happen

Whether the proposed full lifting of restrictions on 21 June goes ahead or not, more and more offices are continuing to reopen, and more workers are returning to them. For most, this means taking a hybrid, flexible approach offering a mix of office and home-based working. But despite the benefits of home working that both employers and employees have seen during the last 15 months, some employers are still planning to mandate a five-day week in the office as restrictions are lifted.

The ongoing debate resurfaced this week when Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at Centre for Cities, told Radio 5 Live’s Wake Up to Money programme that he expected people to work “three or four days a week in the office as the UK recovers”, and that he was “quite hopeful we will see people return five days a week” over the longer term.

Swinney told People Management that he particularly expected those whose living environments weren’t suited to home working would be returning to the office for three or four days per week.

He also said he hoped for a return to a five-day office week because of how much he believed people missed out on when working remotely.

“People are at their most creative at random moments such as at a chat in the office kitchen,” Swinney said. “You can’t easily replicate these serendipitous moments on Zoom and, in time, I do think organisations will suffer from this lack of new free-flowing ideas and innovation.”

He added that younger workers especially were missing out on key professional development opportunities, with many working from their bedrooms.

People Management garnered the views of five people professionals about whether working five days per week in the office would ever become the norm again, and what employers should consider when mandating these requirements.

Returning to five days in the short term is ‘fanciful thinking’

Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, describes the idea of returning to a five-day office week within two years as “fanciful thinking”. But, he acknowledges the “enforced nature” of remote working since the start of the pandemic hasn’t benefited everyone.

“Some returning to the office and less pressure to work remotely is likely to help people fully realise the benefits of remote working and of office based working,” he said.

Cookson adds that while some of his clients are tied into long-term office leases, and are working trying to make the most of them in the short term, many are already making different plans for the future.

“We will still need office space for lots of reasons – we just won’t need as much of it,” he says.

Enforcing full-time office working could cause recruitment issues

Employees have shown themselves to be trustworthy and hard-working while working at home, says Anna Edmondson, head of HR at PowerOn Platforms, who thinks a nationwide full-time return to the office is unlikely to happen in the next few years.

“It would have a very negative impact on engagement to suggest that we now need them back in the office to do their jobs ‘properly’,” she says.

Edmonson adds that flexibility and hybrid working are fast becoming a differentiator for recruiters, warning that “enforcing a full-time office culture might well mean organisations struggle to recruit”.

Collaboration needs the right place at the right time – and not necessarily an office

“Collaboration is different and more challenging in a remote working environment, but in most cases it is not a daily requirement of most roles, ” says Gemma Bullivant, an HR coach and consultant. “Innovative, lightbulb moments never happen at a water cooler, so let's dispel that myth too,” she adds.

Collaboration “only happens if the right people are in the right place at the right time”, and not simply because people are in the office.

Employees now understand what ‘real work-life balance’ looks like

Forecasting a five-day office week was a “premature prediction at this stage” says Jason Brennan, director of wellness and leadership at Wrkit.

While a significant number of employees are looking forward to returning to the office, many have yet to warm up to the prospect of going back to commuting, while others are enjoying the benefits of working from home including easier childcare, a better work-life balance and better sleep, he says.

“A number of teams and businesses have found they can produce work of the same, if not better, quality and quantity from home,” Brennan says. “Now that businesses and staff have this insight into what real work-life balance can look like, I anticipate there being more reluctance than has been predicted to simply going back to how things were before the pandemic.”

Blending home and office working improves motivation and productivity

Suzanne Hurndall, relationship director at hr inspire, says she doesn’t see a return to five day work weeks now that employers are seeing the benefits of flexible working.

“Employers are realising that flexible working, with a blend of home and in office, works with lots of research showing a direct link to improving motivation and productivity, plus the financial benefits of downsizing office space,” she says.

“Unless the job requires you to be in the office or building in order to do your job such as a nurse or carer, then we expect to see most organisations adopt a hybrid way of working full time.”