How should organisations handle getting workers back to the office?

Businesses need to reimagine their workspaces and consult with employees if they are to persuade them to return, says Martin Williams

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Disney, Amazon and Apple are just some of the companies to have made headlines recently as they ask their employees to return to the office. Businesses contemplating a similar move may consider that if an employment contract allows them to determine where the work is done, then any change can be easily carried out. A simple notification of the return should do it. Alas, life is not always so simple.

If we presume that a shift to comprehensive home working was made in response to the Covid epidemic, it would be good to know that the right of recall was incorporated into the temporary arrangement. Essentially, the employer should have said this was temporary, with office-based life still the default. A gradual or hybrid return is common: a slower adjustment back to the before times.

No going back

However, things will never be quite the same again. While many workers would like a return to the office, many would not. They have had a taste of working from home and like it.

Although a contract may say that the office beckons, there can be a point at which reality strikes. Companies will have to remember that they do not hold all the cards. A good worker will know their value; if they enjoy the hybrid life, they will know that someone else will provide that for them, even if their current employer does not.

Individual exceptions can start to creep in, to keep certain individuals happy. That can lead to resentment among those returning to the office in quiet compliance, wishing they could also maintain the hybrid lifestyle. Equally, returning to the office may be better than working at the kitchen table. However, something is amiss when more privileged others stay at home in their purpose-built shed or study. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

To make sure any declared moves back to the office have credibility, the reasons for doing so need to be well founded. This may sound like stargazing stuff, but what is the purpose of the office? What makes it a place that people want to be at if there are alternatives, with the great home-working experiment of the last few years?

This is no one-size-fits-all answer. If employers merely want to justify the investment in real estate, that will not cut it for most people. There is a dynamic labour market at present. Those with lots to offer have the ability to choose with whom they work, and where and how they do it. In that respect not much has changed, but the numbers in this category have grown.

If an office is set up as a hub for improved collegiality it becomes wonderfully attractive. But if all there is to return to is a partitioned cubby with lines of desk jockeys, it is a hard sell. 

Time to rethink

The office has to be reimagined. Social space is increasingly required. The reason for having workers under one roof is so they can interact more easily. We are sociable animals and working in-person together is a creative and productive process. Spontaneity of interaction is obviously easier when in-person appointments do not need advance warning. Of course one person’s spontaneous conversation can be another’s interruption, but that is the joy of working with others.

The purpose of an office was easier to define when we relied on paper. For those who still do nothing much has changed – they were probably back at their desks fairly swiftly anyway. For those keyboard workers who can work virtually, times are different. Here there is a need to address the way of working and what each employer gains by being more flexible. 

All aspects of work need to be considered. Not everyone will be treated the same. Job roles vary. Thinking about how the work is best done will lead to improvements. Now is a golden opportunity to rethink.

But thinking is not something to do alone. Consultation is far better than imposition, even with a contract in place. If that consultation is carried out in-person, an employer will already have shown one of the key benefits of being together in an office. 

Martin Williams is a partner and head of employment at Mayo Wynne Baxter