Seven in 10 companies globally have mandated return to the office, study reveals

While the economic situation shows employers feel they can regain control over the workplace, experts warn of further loss of talent if all flexible working options are taken away

Credit: Miray Celebi Kaba/Digital Vision, Nuthawut Somsuk/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Seven in 10 companies globally (72 per cent) have implemented a return to the office, with two fifths (42 per cent) reporting higher levels of employee attrition than anticipated, a study has found.

The Unispace Global Workplace Insights report, Returning for Good, which surveyed 9,500 employees and 6,650 employers from 17 countries – including Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India and Malaysia – found that almost a third (29 per cent) of businesses were struggling to recruit new staff.

Terry Payne, global managing director of Aspire, said the report’s findings seemed problematic “without a doubt” as thousands of businesses were skills-strapped and “crying out for talent”. “So to give staff no choice but to work in the office could be seen as a little counterproductive,” he said, adding that “there’s no shortage of job vacancies, so any move to force staff back to the office could create more problems than it solves”.

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Additionally, the study revealed 74 per cent of employers had difficulties keeping their employees happy.

At the same time, employees were less reluctant to return to the office (51 per cent) this year, compared to (64 per cent) in 2021. However, with one in two employees still reluctant to return to the workplace, the research found that there was still much to be done to engage the workforce.

Natalie Evans, owner of consultancy Your People 1st, said “the sagging economy and difficulties in the labour market, with an overwhelming amount of workers worried about losing their jobs, has left companies feeling they can regain control over the workplace”, with a mandated return to the office also resulting from some concern that “people are struggling with collaboration, culture, creativity and engagement because of remote and hybrid working”.

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At the same time, she warned that if employers were going to mandate full return, without offering hybrid options, they needed to be prepared for the fall out. This might include: top talent seeking the flexibility they need elsewhere; disengagement, fear and distrust among workers if a return to the office is enforced through disciplinary measures; and overlooking the multifaceted and evolving requirements of a diverse workforce and negatively impacting EDI policy, Evans said.

In the study employers indicated notably higher levels of confidence around some activities carried out in the office compared to remote, such as recruitment (89 per cent versus 73 per cent) and training new staff (84 per cent versus 70 per cent).

Offering some advice on how organisations could help manage talent in the current economic climate, Dr Daniel Wheatley, reader in business and labour economics at the University of Birmingham Business School, said employers should refocus away from traditional concerns around employee malfeasance based around physical presence and time spent in work and instead design jobs that enable employees to work in flexible ways with output as a key measure of performance. “Designing work in this way allows workers to have greater autonomy over their patterns and location of work, while at the same time assuring the organisation that their interests are being met,” he said.

“It is also important to create an environment, both physical and psychological, in which employees find value in being at their employer premises, through collaborating, networking  and building and maintaining relationships with colleagues and leaders.”

Echoing this, Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and chief executive of Flexa, said that companies looking to solve a home-office divide should first look to bridge any such gaps in understanding. “First, employers should consult their team on their working needs, preferences and challenges. Based on this feedback, they should next draw up working arrangements that work for both parties; accommodating both the needs of the business and those of staff,” she said.

While Johnson-Jones acknowledged that not all businesses would be able to offer year-round remote work in practice, “companies could alternatively offer hybrid work or flexible hours for staff who struggle to concentrate when offices are at their busiest, or subscribe to co-working spaces local to individual team members for those who resent office commutes”.