Why employers should think twice about rushing staff back to the office

After workers told to ‘get off their Pelotons and back to their desks’, Marcus Beaver explains why that’s not the best option for businesses or employees

When Cabinet Minister and Conservative Party co-chair Oliver Dowden said last month that people need to “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks", it will undoubtedly have sent the eyebrows of many remote workers soaring. 

Remarking on a senior civil servant’s comments that she had had a “teeny bit of time” to use her exercise bike while remote working during the pandemic, he failed to mention the impact that had on her: “That has been a huge benefit to my wellbeing, the lack of travelling time eating into my day."

Others in her position will relate. Culling the grinding drudgery of a daily commute has provided workers with just enough time to look after themselves and their loved ones a little better. Not just that, they’ve been able to make their working style work for them, with space to focus, quiet to think and, when necessary, platforms on which to communicate and collaborate with colleagues. 

Flying in the face of people's real experiences, Dowden’s extrapolation fuelled the myth that home workers are more concerned with fripperies such as beating their pedal-powered personal best than they are about delivering at work. It’s no coincidence that in the same speech he said that civil servants working from home should “lead by example” by returning to the office. His assertion is clear: those who work from home are slackers and should be shamed. Those who return to the office set the example all employees should follow. 

It’s no surprise that a union representing civil servants said these comments were an "insult" to thousands of dedicated government workers who’ve kept the country running throughout a pandemic that has demanded more of them than ever. The idea that we must return to office working is also an insult to those who choose to consider evidence rather than rhetoric. 

Time and again, research tells us that traditional office working is unproductive, that open-plan offices drain creativity and minimise communication. The average commute of an hour increases instances of depression by over a third. Much of the latest insight shows that collaborative cultures can be built remotely. 

It’s evidence that Boris Johnson seems to have ignored as he echoed the “back to the office” mantra in his party conference keynote speech, saying that a “productive” workforce only comes from “face-to-face meetings and watercooler gossip”. For someone whose office is a mere staircase away, the PM’s message that workers should get back to the grind of the daily commute might seem a hard one to swallow. And one that, for many, makes no sense. 

The reality is that employees can’t ‘unsee’ the benefits of remote working. The office culture of old is dead. With increased flexibility, where work is about what you do, not where you do it, employees find time and space to deliver while also managing their personal lives more effectively. And yes, that means even having the time to exercise.

But that doesn’t mean they are blind to the benefits of shared experiences. Shared spaces offer the chance to interact with colleagues, to deepen relationships, to learn and sometimes to simply escape the four walls of home. As our research shows, two-thirds (65 per cent) of workers want the flexibility to combine office working with working from home. When given the choice, the majority of workers want the flexibility to choose how and where they work, not be dictated to from a place of managerial mistrust and diktats handed down from on-high. 

Thankfully, many employers are waking up to the reality that research and evidence reflects. Forward-thinking employers are offering greater flexibility, supported by smart use of technology, within cultures of trust and accountability. In turn they are attracting the talent they need to thrive. 

With well-publicised skills shortages across industries and the ‘Great Resignation’ seeing employee churn hit hard, old-school employers are losing the talent they need to survive. Their office-based obsession smacks of poor working cultures that fail to respect employees as adults. No matter what the PM says, there is no going back. The result is that, in a candidates’ market, employees have one message for inflexible employers: get on your bike. 

Marcus Beaver is UKI country leader at Alight Solutions