5-Day Return-to-Office Mandates – Logical or Lunacy?

May 20, 2024

Mandating a return to the office is a divisive decision, one that brings nuanced benefits and drawbacks. Is a mandated return right for every organisation? Probably not, but that’s not to say it isn’t a great choice for some. Here are some facts, figures and tips on how best to handle a return to the office, designed to help you decide whether a mandate is right for your business.

Before the Covid pandemic, 4.7% of UK employees worked from home. 

By April 2020, 46.6% of employees were working from home. 

As of June 2023, 29% of UK workers report working from home some of the time. 

This change in the way that we work is unparalleled, but are we likely to see a full return to in-office work any time soon? 

With 92% of companies enforcing some form of in-office policy, and 40% of companies calling staff back into the office five days a week, the answer is a tentative maybe

However, hybrid working is incredibly popular with employees, so a full 5-day mandated return may not go down especially well if your organisation does not both listen to and prepare for pushback. 

Today, we’ll be discussing the pros and cons of 5-day return-to-office mandates, as well as running through some of the most important steps that you should take if you are considering mandating a return to the office (as well as how to decide what balance between WFH and on-site work is right for you and your people). 

The pros and cons of returning to the office

Before we move onto the specifics of how you should approach encouraging employees back into the office, it’s important to understand the pros and cons. Let’s start with the pros:

The pros:

Build stronger employee and inter-departmental connections

There is no doubt that we, as humans, build better, stronger connections when face-to-face. 

For building relationships, there is no substitute for in-person interaction. Sure, video calling is great for most day-to-day meetings, but if you want your employees to build critical bonds, break down silos and form truly meaningful connections, then being in the office is the way to go. 

Workplace culture evolves naturally when working together in person. If you’re mostly remote, culture needs to be purposefully built in and worked on; it won’t evolve in the same way it does when teams are in person. 

For many people, these stronger connections help to mitigate against loneliness and a sense of disconnectedness that some report feeling when working predominantly from home. 

Help to onboard new employees faster

Working remotely is fantastic for experienced, independent employees who know what’s needed of them on a day-to-day basis. 

However, for new employees, joining a remote-first company can be incredibly difficult (especially if management aren’t entirely sure how to properly onboard someone while remote). 

Generally speaking, Gen Z prefer to be in the workplace so that they can listen and learn from their peers. Just being involved in the atmosphere helps them develop their skills and advance their career. However, for in-office development to be successful, it requires senior personnel to be around, meaning that a mandated return to office ensures young team members have the in-person support they require. 

When face-to-face, knowledge is organically transferred; questions can be answered quickly and strong bonds between new employees and existing staff can build. This face-to-face time is especially important for young people who may be taking their first job, or are still early in their career. It can be easy for them to feel lost or to struggle to adjust to working from home. 

More opportunities for collaboration and innovation

When working in the office, there are far more opportunities for spontaneous collaboration, or for discussions to take place organically (especially if your workplace is built around having dedicated spaces specifically for collaboration). 

In-person interactions are often more nuanced, and communication is richer than, say, a video call. While there is still debate on the topic, there is no doubt in our minds that the best collaborative work will always be best done in person. 

Separate work and home

Some remote workers struggle with the fact that work and home are the same place. Remote work blurs the line between our personal and professional lives.

For some, this can have a negative mental impact, an inability to switch off, even once the laptop is closed and the TV is on. 

Returning to the office provides a clear separation of work and home. This can help to reduce burnout and improve mental wellbeing for many. 

Access to specialised tech and resources

Any great workplace will provide a workstation that is superior to the home offices many of us have in our spare rooms. 

If your office is equipped with specialist tools and top-of-the-line technology, it can be hard to argue with the fact that it is the best place for your employees to be in order to be productive.  

The cons:

The commute

The daily commute can be a serious hassle for many people (a hassle that is entirely mitigated when working from home). 

Traffic, congestion, busy trains (which are often disrupted by strike action!)  – all of these frustrations are compounded by the fact that it’s expensive to commute, with the average daily commute costing employees £2,685.60 a year.  

Not only this, but we all enjoy an extra hour or so of sleep when working from home, which is fantastic for both our focus levels and mental health. 

A lack of flexibility

Remote work offers a degree of flexibility. 

Being bound to office schedules makes it harder for people to manage personal commitments (such as doctors’ appointments, school runs or popping to the shops). During the pandemic, we had to adapt our lives around lockdowns. Taking care of relatives, childcare, pets, et cetera. This means that a reluctance to return to the office isn’t necessarily about being selfish; life changes have happened in the last few years that aren’t easily re-arranged. 

As a result of these changes, many of us really appreciate a flexible working schedule and are reluctant (or unable) to give it up.  

Broken promises and stolen liberties

In organisations where remote working and flexibility has been the norm for 4 years or more, some people can feel as if their employers are backtracking on a system that has clearly been functional, restricting their working options for what seems to be no reason. 

For employees, if WFH is delivering results, why should things change? If you plan on a return-to-office mandate, you need to carefully consider WHY you’re asking people to return. If you can’t adequately justify your decision, then you may end up damaging trust with your employees.

You have an unwritten social contract with your employees. If this contract is breached, it is often impossible to restore. Staff may choose to leave rather than working under what they perceive to be a shadow of distrust.

While the labour market is still hungry for skills, a clumsy return-to-office exercise could turn into a very costly recruitment project further down the line. 

Negative environmental impact

Studies show that one day of working from home a week cuts an individual’s emissions by 2%, whereas 2-4 days of WFH can lower your emissions by up to 29%. 

This is due to a combination of factors, such as there being no need for a commute (less traffic on the roads) and a reduced energy requirement at work. 

However, it’s worth mentioning that simply working from home doesn’t guarantee a reduction in emissions, as authors of the aforementioned study note that, “The net benefit for working remotely is positive but a key question is ‘how positive’. When people work remotely, they tend to spend more emissions on social activities.”

If your green policy mandates that you need to find ways to reduce organisational emissions, then perhaps a hybrid model is more suitable for you. 

A potential loss in productivity

We are all productive in different environments, and it’s important that, as a leader in your organisation, that you take into account that not all people will thrive in the office environment. 

For some, the office is a hive of distractions, a place where they cannot readily focus on the task at hand (one of the biggest complaints reported by employees is noise). 

While it’s easy to consider the home office as unproductive, the opposite is actually true in many instances.

As a result, if you want to encourage people back into the office, you need to ensure that they have everything they need to succeed, including both collaborative and focus spaces. 

This means that, if your organisation is considering a return-to-office mandate, be that 5-days or fewer, it’s essential that you truly understand what it is that your people want from your workplace. 

Fail to take the time to learn about your employees’ needs and you risk a mass exodus of talent; something we’re sure you’d like to avoid. 

Want employees back in the office? Learn what they need from the workspace

Imagine you sent an email out today. 

This email let everyone know that, from Monday, they are required to return to the office 5 days a week. 

How would people react? 

People’s lives have changed around working from home. We often talk about the cost of living, but increasingly there is talk about the cost of working – work clothes, commute costs, resources; it can be expensive to work outside of the home now.

Get your mandate wrong, and you’ll be panic-hiring replacement staff in no time. 

Implementing any changes to your current WFH arrangement without the impartial guidance and mediation of Workplace Consultants, such as Rhino, is a significant risk. 

If you’re considering mandating a return to the office, we highly recommend sourcing objective, anonymous feedback from your employees about how exactly they work best and what they need from your workplace. 

Remember: a decision that’s right for you today may not be right for you in 24 months’ time. Here are some of the ways that our Workplace Consultancy service will help you to better understand your employees, their requirements and their thoughts on a return to the office:

We uniquely tailor our consultancy around your objectives

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to consulting with your workforce. 

We will take your objectives into account, helping you glean essential insights into your existing workspace and the mentalities of your people. 

We help you understand the geographical spread of your team

Over the last few years, many organisations have started recruiting from further afield. 

Remote working has allowed for this, but how will people who live far away from your site react to being told that they need to head into the office?

People have changed their social habits around remote work – you need to understand this

Remote workers are caring for pets/wider family members; they are more grounded at home than ever before, so requesting that they come back to the office might be difficult if you cannot adequately justify why. 

We canvass the team for their sentiment

This situation is a negotiation between employer and employee. 

The employee is sacrificing something – flexible working. What are you, as the employer, willing to give in compensation? 

In short – you need to ensure that the workplace you’re asking people to return to has all the comforts of home coupled with the significant benefits of coming into the office. An investment in your workplace shows that you’re taking your employees’ needs seriously. 

As independent mediators, your employees will be far more honest and comfortable talking to us

No matter how good your relationship with your wider team is, as a business/team leader, it’s unlikely that employees are ever fully honest when providing feedback. 

We act as independent mediators. By keeping all feedback anonymous, and holding workshops without leadership present, we allow your people to truly open up about their concerns and what they really want from their workspace. 

Our team act as mediators to work out the cost/benefit contract needed

By carefully surveying sentiment, we can accurately provide a cost/benefit breakdown of returning to the office. 

Say, for example, you’re gunning for a 5-day return-to-office mandate. Our consultancy determines that this will cost you 30% of your workforce – the ones who are not willing to accept a 5 day in house week. 

Does the cost of recruitment, training and development of replacement staff outweigh the benefits of bringing everyone back together in the office? 

We will help you quantify this and come to an accurate decision.

We help your organisation to right size

If you are mandating 5 days back in the office, does your current office space accommodate both your existing workforce and prospective growth?

We’ll work closely with you to determine whether your existing office space is future proof, and what you can do with it to make it more efficient. 

Understand what your people are thinking with Workplace Consultancy

At the end of the day, if you don’t fully understand what your people are thinking, it’s incredibly difficult to find the perfect balance between remote and in-office work. 

No matter the number of days you’re considering mandating, if your people are used to the freedom of remote work, you may well have mutiny on your hands. 

Don’t take the risk – get in touch with our Workplace Consultancy experts, learn what your people are willing to compromise on and make a decision that’s right for your business and right for your people. 

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