Date posted: 25/03/2024 5 min read

The surprising way to get workers into the office

Giving workers a degree of flexibility could be the most effective way to build a loyal, productive and visible team.

Quick take

  • Enforcement isn’t likely to entice workers back to the office; a mandatory five-day week could drive employees away.
  • Hybrid working can provide a workable compromise for both sides.
  • There are ways to make the office more appealing and the commute worthwhile.

The best way to get people back into the office? Let them work from home – at least some of the time.

“Flexible working is the most searched-for term on Seek,” says Dr Libby Sander, assistant professor at Bond University. “Most employees want to come into the office some of the time, just not all of the time. They’re looking to balance less commuting and having time to manage other responsibilities with meeting their colleagues in the office for networking, learning and face-to-face serendipity.”

However, some organisations still see the traditional five-day working week as the holy grail.

“It could be that the managers aren’t confident about managing any other way,” says Sander. “They may also fear a loss of productivity, though it’s a misnomer to think there’s a correlation between being in the office and being productive.”

She points out that remote work had little or no impact on productivity even during the most stressful times of the pandemic, with some firms even seeing productivity improvements. Plus, a recent study showed that when companies in the US ordered employees back to the office five days a week it didn't improve their outcomes, profits or shareholder value.

A culture of trust

For employees, a mandatory five days in the office might be a cultural red flag.

“It could signal a fundamental lack of trust: do the managers believe you’ll only do your job if you’re monitored all the time?” says Sander. “We’ve known for decades that autonomy produces significant results in terms of job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation. Without the culture of trust that supports autonomy, an organisation will struggle to keep talent, so this is not a sustainable mindset.”

There’s also the issue of travel.

“Commuting can be very tiring, very expensive and a waste of the time you could be spending with family, hobbies, exercising or relaxing – things that have a huge impact on our mental and physical health, and also our quality of life,” says Sander.

Smaller talent pool

Lack of flexibility will also reduce an already limited talent pool. According to the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, in 2019, the year before the pandemic, 25% of the workforce worked at least partly from home. By 2022, this had risen to 36%. The biggest rise has been among parents with young children, Dr Leonora Risse, associate professor in economics at the University of Canberra, writes in The Conversation. She believes that making workers return to the office for tasks that can be done from home will result in fewer people, especially women and parents with young children, putting themselves forward for work.

“The proportion of mothers with children under five working at least partly from home has leapt from 31% to 43%,” the article states. “The working-from-home rate for fathers with children under five has jumped from 29% to 39%.”

A workable compromise

At the same time, humans are very social animals. According to Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, when COVID struck, there was already an epidemic of loneliness among young people, especially those in their first jobs in a city. Meeting colleagues predominantly or exclusively through Zoom did little to help. This suggests a hybrid model could be a workable compromise for both employer and employee.

“Post-COVID, we’ve found that most new clients want us to design spaces to accommodate hybrid working,” says Sarah-Jane Sullivan, design lead, New Zealand at Cachet Group, which designs and constructs tailored commercial interiors in both Australia and New Zealand. “They’re looking for an environment where people can be physically present in the office for two, three or even four days a week.”

The aim is to make people want to spend time at the office.

“We’ve found that employees’ top priority is a space where they can get together, whether that’s for socialising or collaboration,” says Sullivan. “They also want videoconferencing spaces that make it easy to connect with any team members working from home.”

Ambiance is another crucial factor, particularly when some of the space isn’t being used.

“The last thing you want for the office is to feel empty,” says Sullivan. “Once we know how many people are likely to be there on any given day and the type of work they’ll be doing, we can create a welcoming atmosphere by designing a flexible space.”

Present for perks?

Could perks such as free yoga classes and in-house baristas lure people back to the office?

“As organisations gravitate toward incorporating wellness and sustainability initiatives into the workplace, we’re seeing a rise in perks that support this, as well as incentives that can help make the commute worthwhile: such as social events,” says Sullivan, “but it’s all about balance. Many people would prefer flexibility and a range of comfortable spaces where they can perform different aspects of their work.”