desk or flex: the office return debate

Should all good things come to an end? As covid-19 swept through the UK in early 2020, the abrupt shift to remote work for some UK workers became the norm. Fast-forward to 2024 and now two in five companies are returning to the office full-time. The transition back to the office has varied widely, with small businesses continuing to embrace flexible working, while larger employers are taking a firmer stance. Take part-owner of Manchester United Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s bold move – he’s practically daring his staff to choose between the office grind or… well, get creative with their weekdays! And he’s not the only one putting his foot down as global software giant Dell has dropped a bombshell, letting their staff know that hybrid and remote workers might find themselves on the promotion sidelines, a sign that the return to office debate has hit crisis point.

Research by Towergate Health & Protection found that 98% of companies are still pushing for employees to return to the office. However, most of the UK workforce isn’t prepared to back down so easily. Many are resisting the return to office life, refusing to embrace the full-time hustle and commuter lifestyle, especially after enjoying the improved work-life balance that flexible working provides. Given the escalating well-being crisis and a fiercely competitive talent market, it’s high time to question whether the benefits of return to office mandates are worth the risks – 54% of fully remote employees and 38% of hybrid workers admit they would look for a new job if their employer stopped offering remote work options.

Despite the benefits of remote work, research indicates a preference for hybrid working options amongst most of the UK workforce. According to a 2023 YouGov poll, nearly half of Brits desire a hybrid working situation, while 29% want to work remotely on a permanent basis. The evidence is compelling – flexibility in work arrangements has become increasingly important for working people today. It offers multiple advantages for both employees and companies, including improved work-life balance, reduced commuting times and costs, and fostering a sense of autonomy and trust among employees. Also, the UK is about to implement significant changes to its statutory flexible working regime. Currently, employees need 26 weeks of continuous service to request flexible working. The upcoming changes include eliminating the 26-week service requirement, allowing employees to make two applications per year instead of one, removing the need for employees to explain the impact of their proposed arrangements, requiring employers to consult with employees before denying a request, and shortening the response time for employers to two months instead of three.

The bottom line? Ping pong tables, free snacks, and extravagant happy hours no longer appeal to the modern worker. Instead, they are looking for benefits that enhance their life and well-being like flexibility, equitable pay, and a real sense of belonging. Given this shift, companies should not anticipate that staff will readily return to the office and immediately re-establish team culture at the snap of a finger. On the contrary, they risk alienating staff rather than reinvigorating them.

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