UK employees spend just 1.6 per days a week in the office, research shows – but is that a problem for employers?

As new data reveals UK workers are spending minimal time in the workplace, People Management asks whether this should be a concern for HR

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The pros and cons of hybrid working have long been debated, especially following its resurgence during the pandemic, with many questioning whether office working will ever return to pre-Covid levels.

But recent research from Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) has discovered that, on average, UK workers only complete 1.6 days of their working week in the office – which is only slightly fewer than the global average of 1.7 days per week.

Indeed, this is drastically lower than the pre-pandemic levels of 3.8 days in the office per week.

However, hybrid working has caused headaches for many organisations, which are trying to balance working arrangements through various policies.

According to the Independent, Zoom is the latest company to introduce a policy – in reaction to increased hybrid working – which requires employees that live within 50 miles of the office to commute at least two days a week.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google employees are facing “stricter” hybrid working policies, as those who frequently flout the rules could have this as a negative strike against them in performance reviews.

AWA data found that while just under half (46 per cent) of offices have no hybrid policy mandating employee attendance, a quarter (25 per cent) do, and require employees to spend three days in the office per week.

So, should employers encourage people back to the workplace? People Management asks experts how they might entice them to do so.

Measuring productivity

According to Gemma Dale, senior lecturer at Liverpool Johns Moores University,  organisations should not encourage people back to the office as a “default” approach, but only if they have good reasons for doing so, emphasising that she means “sound” and “evidence” based reasons, not “beliefs” steeped in personal opinions. “Too often there is an in-built assumption that this is necessary as for some organisations and some roles it may be or there may be a better way of working,” she says.

In terms of office working, it is long “overdue” that employers and HR start thinking about how to use them differently, because “they are no longer the default workplace or the only option”, she adds. “Office attendance and productivity are not established partners and it’s time we stopped assuming that there’s a causal relationship – the pandemic enforced home-work period told us otherwise.”

Echoing this, a separate report by RingCentral, which polled 1,002 UK full-time workers aged 21 to 65, found that half (51 per cent) of respondents felt more productive when working from home.

Meanwhile, according to exclusive data from People Management’s LinkedIn poll of 1,540 HR professionals, those in HR have not witnessed a drop in productivity among their remote and hybrid workers, with 88 per cent believing that remote and hybrid working has no influence on worker productivity.

This contradicts prior Vitality data reporting, which stated that home workers were 13 per cent less productive than hybrid workers – adding to the ongoing back-to-office debate.

Daniel Wheatley, reader in business and labour economics at the University of Birmingham Business School, suggests that as well as a preference to work from home, employees are increasingly driven by other factors, including a demand for client/customer and onsite visits and a general reorganisation of workspaces. “This combination of drivers means that employees often spend a substantial proportion of their working time in locations other than their employer workplace,” he says, adding that “rhetoric” implying that employees need to return to empty offices is founded on “quite limited” evidence bases relating to certain concerns including staff “misusing” company time.

Importance of autonomy and not following the crowd

Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, says people have grown accustomed to working when, where and how they want since the pandemic and “balancing” lots of different priorities, and that to remove that “autonomy” and “freedom” is a big ask. “Employers might feel that a fixed-hybrid model two days onsite and three days remote or the opposite is doing people a favour, but it really isn’t,” he says, adding that there is often no “analysis” behind the arbitrary days of the week split to suggest it is the most appropriate for any job.

Cookson emphasises that employees will come onsite if there is a clear reason for them to be there and the experience is “productive” and “engaging”, as too many organisations leave things to chance, “hoping that mandating a fixed-hybrid approach on its own will be enough to make everything work”.

Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and chief executive of Flexa, says recent stories have tended to focus on how companies like Amazon and Zoom are requiring higher office attendance, and that, on the surface, there seems to be a general “back to office” movement. However, this “narrative disregards the bigger picture”, she argues.

The crucial point is that organisations considering a shift to a fixed-hybrid work model should first speak with their own staff to determine their preferences and then design a policy based on the feedback, Johnson-Jones suggests. Otherwise, employers risk encountering opposition to office job requirements, she warns.

Cutting costs

The sentiment of allowing employees to work when and where they like does mean that many employers are left footing the bill for largely unused facilities, says Amanda Trewhella, employment law director at Freeths. “Many organisations are now considering whether their premises should be reduced or repurposed,” she says.

Indeed, law firm Kingsley Napley has done just that with its new ‘blackout Friday’, which sees two and a half of its London floors closed on Fridays, in a bid to save money on costly often uninhabited office spaces as most employers adopt hybrid or remote working arrangements.

Speaking to People Management on its reporting of blackout Friday, Liz Sebag-Montefiore, career coach and director of HR consultancy 10Eighty, said: “The success of a blackout Friday policy, as outlined by Kingsley Napley, is dependent on organisational culture, the nature of the work and the specific reasons behind the blackout.

“It's important for HR and management to communicate these expectations clearly to employees to strike a balance between operational needs and employee flexibility.”

And Jemimah Cook, HR director at Kingsley Napley, said implementing such a policy was a “win win” for the firm as it empowered flexibility and cost cutting. She hoped it would inspire “other firms and businesses to do the same”.