Skip to content

Are you returning to the office, five days a week? The week in hybrid working click bait headlines…

This past week all my networks about hybrid and virtual working have been dominated by attention grabbing headlines from this year’s KPMG CEO Outlook survey:

Most bosses think you’ll be back in the office 5 days a week within 3 years (Fortune)

Two-thirds of CEOs think staff will return to office five days a week (The Guardian)

Most executives expect a full return to the office by 2026 (The Times)

These headlines are usually accompanied by predictions around the disadvantages employees not willing to return might face:

87% of CEOs globally – 83% in the UK – told us it’s likely or very likely that employees who make an effort to come into the office will be rewarded with favourable assignments, raises or promotions.

KPMG CEO Outlook

There is some mention of the need to carefully handle a return to the office, to take into account what employees need and want, but overall, there is a strong sense of relief that established corporate power structures are flexing their muscles by demanding that workforces return to their rightful place in every sense of the word.

When I carried out the research for my book on virtual working, I found a distinct lack of evidence that the employment policy landscape in the UK or the US was changing. Other countries, especially around Europe, used the increase in home working during the pandemic to establish laws around employees’ rights to disconnect. But here in the UK there was no sense from government of urgency to create similar policies for the long term. Instead, UK policy flexed to accommodate emergency measures and short-term solutions.

So what do we really know about what the landscape looks like in the UK beyond the outlook of CEOs? Are workplaces really preparing for a return to the office, five days a week?

Recent research

Report: Flexible and hybrid working practices in 2023 (CIPD, 25 May, 2023)

This is an interesting report, based on YouGov survey data, that explores flexible and hybrid working in the UK. The report focuses on employer and employees perspectives related to changes to flexible working law.

What I found most useful is that the report gives you a sense of what the current overall scale of flexible and hybrid working is in the UK, and also how many different practices this encompasses, with everything from working from home to having a four-day week and from zero-hour contracts to career breaks.

Hybrid working, in the context of this report, requires employees to still be in the workplace for a specific number of days per month or per week. The report states: “Over half (52%) require hybrid working employees to be in the workplace for a minimum number of days in the working week/month, while 46% do not. Private sector employers are more likely to say they have a minimum requirement, and voluntary sector employers are more likely to say they do not. Overall, employees are most likely to be required in the workplace for two (35%) or three (33%) days a week.

Is this a long-term trend? Or simply organisations operating more or less as before, but with more flexible and hybrid working added on top of existing practices? When it comes to long-term impact on resourcing office space, pay and equality, the report only includes brief mentions. It does highlight that employers perceive a positive impact on productivity, recruitment and retention as well as employee financial wellbeing.

When it comes to hybrid working specifically, the report states that “Eighty-three per cent of organisations have hybrid working in place. Forty-five per cent have a formal policy, 24% take an informal approach, and 13% are developing policies through learning/trialling. When CIPD last asked this in a similar survey in June 2022, fewer had hybrid
working (77%) and fewer had formal policies in place (34%).”

This is really interesting, particularly when thinking about the managers leading teams in half the organisations that have hybrid working in place, but do not have formal policies. The need to develop skills for manage this scale of changes in the workplace is clearly becoming more urgent as the proportion of workplaces who offer flexible and hybrid working increases. The report reflects this as a negative impact of more flexible and hybrid working:

  • Specially, ability of managers to lead teams effectively (-18)
  • and identify as challenging for managers managing remote teams from a wellbeing and performance perspective (41%)

Developing your skills as a leader or manager in this context is particularly difficult because so few organisations have expertise to draw on and there is little formal training led by experts who actually have a track record beyond their personal experience of working from home.

Interested in evolving your approach to Hybrid Working? Registration for my next course starting 20th October is now open and it’s free for everyone. Sign up today.

Changes to workplace laws

One of the biggest changes in the UK this year is the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill. This Bill has wide-reaching consequences for employers and employees, including granting employees the right to request flexible working from day 1 instead of after 26 weeks (background info) with the aim to make employment ‘flexible by default’.

As part of the work of the Flexible Working Taskforce, there now are a growing number of resources for employers and employees, including:

This follows on from last year’s UK consultation Making flexible working the default (December 2022) which included a focus on better understanding how informal flexible working operates in practice. It is very clear how far-reaching this particular issue is, even if the proposed changes to employment law don’t encompass all aspects:

Flexible working doesn’t just mean a combination of working from home and in the office – it can mean employees making use of job-sharing, flexitime, and working compressed, annualised, or staggered hours. … The ‘Making flexible working the default’ consultation recognised that flexible working is different for every employee, employer, and sector – it does not come in one size only. For an office worker, they may benefit from a job-share so they can better care for their children, or a factory worker may request different shift patterns that suit their balance between home and work. Because of this, the government will not instruct employers or employees on how to carry out their work, instead we encourage both parties have constructive and open-minded conversations about flexible working and find arrangements that work for each side.

However, the proposed changes do not go far enough in addressing the wider issues at stake here and this WIRED article provides a helpful insight into what’s not being tackled.

What does this tell us?

The change in the law around flexible working seems to be paying lip service to what employees demand, but is not going far enough in tacking the hybrid working issue that grab the headlines. This bill won’t protect the rights of employees if bosses increase demands to return to the office full time or ensure that those not returning won’t be disadvantaged. It doesn’t put onus on employers to up skill managers or upgrade infrastructure to exploit the full potential that hybrid working could offer. What it covers is too broad an area and not clearly enough defined to support hybrid working specifically.

There’s also something else at stake here, which comes out in the KPMG survey, a sense that work is all about people, “that business are about people, after all”. There is a lot of talk of nurturing wellbeing, supporting careers and offering the right sort of value proposition to employees with whom “hybrid working is extremely popular”.

Businesses are about making profits, and I am pretty such that the companies that take part in the KPMG survey and those quoted as ‘leading the return to the office’ such as Amazon and Google, are not seeing how giving employees more flexibility, continuously up-skilling managers to adapt to flexible workforces and making less use of extensive corporate campuses will benefit their bottom line.

Hybrid working is extremely popular not because some people can’t see that it’s more fun to have a coffee with colleagues than staring at endless video calls through a laptop screen. Hybrid working is popular because it enables people to cope with the competing demands of their lives, including family or caring responsibilities. It means spending less time and money on commuting, eating lunch alone and buying office appropriate clothes. Hybrid working has opened up a new perspective for many that work matters less, and being outside, spending time with family or simply taking a breath is more important than work.

Yes, hybrid working is complex and not without downsides, as I have explored at length elsewhere, but these headlines about mandating a return to the office seem to be much more about executives clinging onto old power structures than caring about people. Let’s not give into that and instead use the momentum created by the increase in hybrid working during the pandemic to shape the future of work for good.

Enjoyed this post? Get my free monthly newsletter directly to your inbox.

Image credit: Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash