‘You haven’t been in the office this week. Why?” The worker in question hadn’t expected such an email from his boss. Based in Asia but working for a large US media organisation, he had been on an overseas work trip, and his failure to swipe his pass at the building’s turnstiles while he was away had triggered an alert.
This is an extreme example of business leaders straining to reverse pandemic home working habits, but it reflects an increasingly tense battle within public and private organisations.
Months after Covid restrictions in the UK were lifted, there has not been a large-scale return of office workers to their desks. Now a tug-of-war is playing out between those who wish to see flexibility about where, and sometimes when, people do their jobs become a permanent fixture, and those keen to return to pre-pandemic patterns.
One one side are the many staff who say performing their role remotely and spending less time – and money – commuting has improved their work-life balance, given them more time with family and increased productivity.
On the other side are frustrated managers at large office-occupiers who say they want to reignite their workplaces with the collaboration and creativity that comes from in-person interaction.
Many bosses had hoped the end of the summer holidays would bring more staff back to their desks. And according to property consultancy Remit, in the first full working week of September, the daily average number of employees in England and Wales working from the office hit its highest level since May 2021. But that high was just 31%. In the capital, office occupancy reached 50% on single days in the week to 9 September in the West End and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Docklands, home to many banks and financial institutions which have been loud proponents of “back to office”.
This is a sign of a “slow but sustained return to the workplace”, according to Lorna Landells at Remit, although the data also shows employees much more likely to go in on “core” midweek days than on Monday or Friday. The number of passengers travelling on London’s underground system has slowly risen, but remains stuck about a quarter below pre-pandemic levels.
How organisations manage hybrid working – where colleagues split time between the office and home or another remote location – was top of the agenda at a recent human resources conference in Docklands hosted by consultancy Gartner and attended by HR teams from some of the UK’s largest firms.
Businesses are “trapped in a vicious cycle”, says Gartner research director Alexia Cambon. “The majority of organisations I speak to are trying to market the office as a place for collaboration, community and connection. When you tell your employees that the unique value proposition of the office is other people, but go into the office and no one is there, you’re setting them up for disappointment.”
Cambon added: “It’s an interesting conundrum that organisations are facing; marketing the office as what they want it to be, not what it is.”
Another concern for bosses is that remote working makes employees more likely to jump ship for better pay, conditions or career advancement. Turnover is 20% higher than pre-pandemic, according to a Gartner survey, though some of this churn is a result of unemployment at its lowest since 1974, and record vacancy levels putting the power is in employees’ not employers’ hands.
Cambon argues that hybrid patterns increase loyalty, rather than reduce it. “All the data says that if you rescind flexible working, employees will leave. Flexibility is seen not as a perk, but as a right.”
US tech giant Apple learned this to its cost this summer when it circulated a memo from chief executive Tim Cook telling workers they had to come into the office at least three days a week from September, including Tuesdays and Thursdays. A group of workers launched a petition, saying the move risked stifling diversity and staff wellbeing. At least one high-level employee quit. Ian Goodfellow said he quit as director of machine learning to move to Google partly because of the rival’s more flexible working arrangements.
While UK companies want bums on seats, few of them appear willing to order attendance as did the US media organisation that monitored turnstiles. Brian Kropp, Gartner chief of HR research, said 43% of firms it surveyed did not track employees’ presence in the office, and few would fire those who refuse. “What happens if someone doesn’t show up that often? The response from a good number of companies is, we’ll have a good talk with them to figure out why,” Kropp said. “And after that good talk if you don’t think they’ve got a good reason why they are not coming in, what are you going to do, the answer is, we’ll have another good talk with them.”
Hybrid working also reduces building occupancy, leaving many large corporates mulling how to manage their space when leases come up for renewal. Last week HSBC told staff it was looking at whether to keep its global headquarters in Canary Wharf, where it has been based for more than two decades, after its lease for the 45-floor tower expires in 2027.
Those businesses still tied into their leases are debating how to run partly full workspaces this winter as energy bills soar.
“If you have a lot of office space, it’s expensive to heat it,” Kropp said: “A lot of employers have done the math and are saying it’s just not worth it.” One result, according to Kropp, is that companies are planning to switch off heating and power on certain floors, or even on quiet days. What remains unclear is whether the cold weather will do what bosses couldn’t: push reluctant staff back to offices to save on their own domestic bills.