How to decide when to return to the office… and if you ever should

16 Sep 2020 By Ian MacRae

Employers must listen to staff rather than relying on national surveys, gather data on remote working during Covid and be open to hybrid models, says Ian MacRae

There is an ongoing debate about the merits and effectiveness of working remotely versus working in a traditional office building. Recent research indicates that more than half of workers are reluctant to return to the office. Adaptation to remote working, returning to work and a hybrid model will continue to evolve, albeit at a far more rapid pace in the 2020s than it did in the 2010s.

With all the available information, opposing points of view and potential conflict between national, regional and local priorities, here are a few things for HR to remember.

Listen to your people

National surveys are great indicators of general trends. However, they may or may not be representative of your people. During times of uncertainty it is even more important than usual to have your ear to the ground and ask the people in your own company about their perspectives. Asking questions about physical and psychological wellbeing should be a priority. This can be conducted in large, representative, organisation or department-wide surveys, as well as more targeted, qualitative and in-depth discussion.

Be evidence-based on remote work policy

For companies where home working has been an option, we are nearly six months into the largest remote working experiment in history. So many will now have a substantial amount of performance data related to remote working. That data, combined with information about employees’ attitudes, should inform future policy about working arrangements.

Staff who have performed effectively and want to remain working remotely should be allowed to. The role of anyone responsible for employee performance should be supporting them to be most effective in their role. Giving workers autonomy is a far more effective way to boost performance than micromanaging. 

But although remote working can be effective, especially when coupled with effective performance management, it doesn’t work well for everyone. There are long-term implications for recruitment and onboarding that may be particularly challenging for newer and younger workers in graduate jobs or those with less established careers. So using performance and preference data could help determine which employees or groups would benefit most from returning to a physical office space.

Understand the barriers 

There are specific reasons that remote working does or does not suit certain organisations, or certain people within organisations. Make sure to understand those reasons. In some companies it’s just not possible to do the work remotely. Some companies may have large groups of employees with certain difficulties. For example, younger and lower-income workers who have less space, don’t have a dedicated workspace, live with many other people and have insufficient tools, technology and connectivity may find it more difficult to set up an effective home-working space.

Consider blended, hybrid and hub-and-spoke models

There are rarely simple solutions to complex problems; be wary of people who say there are. Here it’s not simply a case of deciding between working 100 per cent remotely or only in an office. Most organisations will probably find it useful to continue experimenting with blended or hybrid work models, like some companies were already doing effectively years before the pandemic.

Some businesses are moving towards a ‘hub and spoke’ model, where offices act as centralised hubs for collaboration, meetings and events, and employees work in a more distributed way, hopefully without compromising the quality of communication and interpersonal relationships.

As restrictions on people’s movement, social interaction and businesses change, remote work policies will also need to adapt. To remain flexible and with the understanding that restrictions may tighten again in the autumn and winter, hybrid model variations are likely to be necessary for most companies.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of Myths of Social Media

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