Compulsory Return to the Office

Our CEO has thrown a bit of a curve ball into the mix today, and has suggested that, after three years of successfully working to a very flexible hybrid model of working (1 - 2 days per week from the office and the rest of the week from home), he wants everyone to work 3 - 4 days each week from the office from October. His main reason for this is down to a (perceived) lack of team spirit and that other business owners he has spoken to recently have enforced a return to the office. He has shared his thoughts with the senior management team for further discussion later in the week, and so this has not yet been announced to the wider business.

Whilst I am not totally against this, and personally I enjoy working from the office as well as from home and can see the merits of hybrid working, I am worried about the wider reaction to this if it is indeed enforced. Our current hybrid working policy states at least one day from the office per week to be agreed with the line manager, or head of department, and therefore everyone has enjoyed a very flexible approach since we emerged from the pandemic.

Personally, I do not necessarily feel there has been a detrimental effect on 'team spirit' in all the time we have worked to this hybrid policy, and worry that this change in direction could be misinterpreted as a lack of trust from senior management (ie the CEO) and could lead to a hugely negative impact on engagement levels, morale and team spirit.

Has anyone else had experience of moving towards more office-based working in the last year or so, and if so, how did you communicate this in a positive way, and what steps did you take to ensure employee engagement levels were not jeopardised during the transition and afterwards?

  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    4 Sep, 2023 17:02

    Hi  ... very interesting that you posted this today as the conversation today at CIPD (some of us, anyway) has been this article in the Times today. I also learned from a family member who works at a large MAT that their CEO is also mooting a full return to to "pre-pandemic" ways of working.


    May I ask what sector you work in? 

    Of course many employers will have moved too far now - e.g. disposing of or reconfiguring office space, etc... and some employees moved house! 

    I'd be really interested to hear from more of you.

  • Hi Estelle,

    We're in the same boat as you - we've been working to two days a week in the office and most departments have one fixed day for consistency. Our CEO wants to up that to three days - he would have everyone in full time if he could. His exception is the tech team who will stay at two days because it's harder to hire in that area and many other tech firms are more remote than us.

    Both the COO and I think this is going to go down really badly not least because it's off the back of a number of rounds of restructuring which obviously affects morale as it is. We've tried to think of some alternatives that might make this either more palatable (early finish on Fridays/'come into the office at 10am' i.e. post rush hour to mitigate costs). Our current top suggestion is to keep to the two days on a weekly basis but do a full week in the office every 6 - 8 weeks. We'll be discussing it at the management meeting next week.

    I'd also love to hear from anyone else who's experienced similar and what the impact of it was. I think it might be a bit of an ongoing battle!
  • In reply to Steve Bridger:

    Hi Steve, we're private sector - an SME with 35 employees. A couple of years ago we actually configured our office space to accommodate hybrid working with hot desking areas, quiet 'pods' and collaboration spaces. We also relinquished half our original office space as we didn't need it anymore. This space is no longer available! I will certainly keep you posted - we're discussing further in our management meeting tomorrow!
  • In reply to Alys Martin:

    Hi Alys, interesting to hear you're experiencing a similar situation - it certainly feels as if the hybrid / remote model is shifting!
  • In reply to Estelle:

    Very much so! I do think a lot of it speaks to a lack of trust and managers could do with training on how to manage remote teams better - where everyone slid into it during the pandemic, I think in a lot of spaces, it wasn't addressed pro-actively. I also think it's sometimes on measuring the wrong things - because people aren't around, the focus shifts from output to activity.
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    5 Sep, 2023 08:15

    In reply to Estelle:

  • Hi Estelle,

    I work for an organisation (Cathedral) with a successful hybrid working policy for most but not all roles. Interestingly, my husband also enjoys a hybrid working arrangement in his work for a big tech multinational. His managers have been briefed to insist on a return to the office for at least 3 days a week for those in a full time role as previous attempts to insist on more office working have been mostly ignored. As his colleagues have always seen the flexibility of their working culture to be a major asset and to offset their less than market rate pay, he thinks that this is an attempt to raise turnover at his site by encouraging those to leave who don't value on-site working. He's worked there a long time and there has been a cycle to the growth and decline of employee numbers and investment at his site versus off-shoring some roles in different countries - his intuition is usually right.

    I guess if I was in your shoes and you felt your CEO and management team were going to support this change no matter what I would be looking at:

    1. What notice you were planning to give people. For some who have caring or other responsibilities predicated on a home working pattern, a month is not much notice and likely to cause worry and dissent. If you don't have adequate space, could this be a valid reason for bringing people back in smaller units rather than everyone all at once?
    2. I'd think about what the benefits are for those coming in - what does your CEO think will improve? Is he suggesting some other methods to combat the perceived low team spirit? Do you agree with his assessment?
    3. Involvement of middle managers - we all know they are key to these things going smoothly. Are they in support of this? If not, how can you persuade them it will be better for them?

    Hope this helps and good luck.
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    5 Sep, 2023 11:00

    In reply to Gemma:

    I think you're right to advise thinking well ahead. 'Reversal' is likely to be as disruptive as anything we've experienced over the last 3 years.
  • In reply to Estelle:

    Hi Estelle I would recommend you:

    1. try to pin down your CEO to how the problem is actually manifesting. What sort of behaviours is he seeing that are unacceptable? There may be other ways to address the issues without a blanket directive to work in the office.
    2. Remind him of the reasons he opted for more remote working in the first place - and the business benefits of this.
    3. Point out that remote working on a larger scale is still a new thing, and every business needs to learn lessons about how it can be improved. So what's working well and not so well in your business? And how can it be made better?
  • In reply to Steve Bridger:

    No mumblings as yet Steve, but as yet it's not general knowledge. We're discussing it further tomorrow at our monthly management meeting, and depending on what is decided we would then decide on the most appropriate communications for this....
  • We have tried to encourage people to work in the office a few days a week taking a relaxed approach to it, but it is proving difficult the uptake to the request is not as we had hoped and I expect my company may take a similar approach and make it compulsory for a set number of days each week. The problem we have is that during, and since the pandemic, candidates wanted remote based contracts, and if you were not willing to offer them this working arrangement they would look elsewhere, therefore we have a percentage of our employees that are fully homebased. We are in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector and there appears to be a growing trend amongst the big pharmaceutical companies to require employees to return to the office 3-4 days a week. I think this will be an interesting one to watch.
  • In reply to Elizabeth Boulton:

    We are an SME of around 30 and had the opposite issue in that we were all brought back to the office full time at the earliest opportunity during Boris' 'Roadmap'. It was a really stressful time and there was lots of resistance/resentment but the fact was that despite best efforts there were issues with team dynamic which did impact productivity, and one or two were suffering from isolation (even though they didn't want to admit it at the time). Also the nature of our industry is very fast paced and you need to be able to react to things at the drop of a hat and gather people together ad hoc to deal with the latest curve ball, which just did not work as well via Zoom/Teams in a region of the country where the wifi and broadband aren't the best. So to be honest, we muddled through during lockdown because we had to rather than it becoming a successful norm. When we first brought people back, despite the resistance, several colleagues subsequently admitted it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be and they actually enjoyed being back - it was the effects of all the constant government and media doom mongering which had caused them the anxiety but the reality of the working environment and the ability to interact in person was better. We have flexed a little since then in that everyone is now permitted to work from home one day per week if they wish, and there are actually several of us who don't and only use the option very occasionally and that does seem to be working for us. We have also recruited during this time even before we introduced 1 day wfh and haven't really found an issue with candidates insisting on some hybrid/remote element, maybe one or two but no more than that. I do think every organisation is different as the variety of experiences on this thread shows, so there isn't one hard and fast rule.
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    7 Sep, 2023 09:04

    In reply to Nicola:

    Hi  , that's very interesting. Do you have a varied employee demographic? is there a predominance of 'younger' people...? Just fishing really... as I'm very interested in whether we're seeing a real trend here.

  • Taking the long view it will be interesting to see if this 5-10 year period started by the pandemic is an aberration in the long term pattern of work or a genuine and sustained seismic shift in how we work.

    Personally I have not seen the changes necessary (yet) in moving from input to output driven management, improvements in communications and engagement or a change in core attitudes and beliefs to suggest to me that this 2-5 year period will be anything other than the peak of remote working and that longer term we may well drift back to more of the long term trend position - perhaps not all the way but far closer than we are now

    Whilst we just lift and shift working norms from locations to remote without making the other changes necessary its likely that the counter revolutionary forces will ultimately re-establish the upper hand.
  • Steve Bridger

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    Community Manager

    7 Sep, 2023 09:14

    In reply to Keith:

    Hi  , could you please elaborate on...

    Keith said:
    ...without making the other changes necessary...