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Return to Office?

The adoption of remote work, prompted by the pandemic, has shifted towards a multitude of hybrid working arrangements, with the three-day in-office week the current favourite compromise. Whilst a minority of businesses have embraced a remote-first culture, many business leaders are keen to promote and even enforce an office-first approach. 

Unsurprisingly, the workforce is less eager to return to a more rigid approach. In response, businesses that first turned to the carrot of in-office perks are now formalising structured office days, with warnings for non-attendance and the stick of disciplinary action. Although most employees are under contracts that specify a main place of work, and as such, employers are well within their rights to enforce a return to the office, the impact on talent retention and acquisition is a significant consideration.

Some of the major tech companies that initially embraced remote as the future of work are now retreating from this position. In February 2023, Amazon employees who had been working remotely for three years were told that they would be required to return to the office at least three days per week. In August, workers identified as not complying were sent a warning email, and just this month, a spokesperson confirmed that employees who did not comply would find it more difficult to gain promotion.

In two further examples, Google announced plans to enforce its three-day-a-week hybrid schedule in June. At the same time, Meta backtracked on its predictions that half the company’s workforce would be remote by 2025 by asking its office workers to adopt a three-day-a-week in-office schedule.

However, this is not to suggest the end of remote working. EY is just one of many companies reducing office space as part of a long-term response to the shift to hybrid and remote working. They will say goodbye to their existing London HQ at the end of their tenancy agreement in 2028, whilst HSBC also plan to downsize their London base with plans to move from their Canary Wharf location in 2027.

Employees who favour remote working argue they are more productive at home due to fewer interruptions from co-workers and more time for focused work. They are more able to balance the demands of their personal lives and benefit from the savings on reduced travel and lunch costs. This explains why employees value remote work so highly, with reports equating the value to an 8% salary increase. On the other side, business leaders feel less able to monitor progress and build teams and perceive a lack of creativity and collaboration when working remotely and the knock-on impact on productivity and, ultimately, revenue.

The debate on how and where we work shows no signs of ending. Whilst many have embraced a hybrid approach, it’s doubtful that three is the magic number when it comes to office attendance. Common complaints include empty offices, in-office time spent on calls, and the flip side of crowded spaces where employees find they are unable to focus due to ongoing distractions.

Finally, there are concerns that an inflexible Return To Office mandate is most detrimental to minorities and those with caring responsibilities. Such strict rules also place geographical restrictions on the search for the best talent, particularly where skills and experience are in high demand.

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