Your work wants you back in the office full time, what do you do?

“My company wants me to return to the office full-time – but I don’t want to”

Hybrid working is now the norm for many workplaces, but what do you do when yours wants you to be in the office full-time and you’re not keen? Here, The Honest Boss takes on this all too common problem

“The company I work for has been encouraging us to return to the office full-time. I’ve been doing this for a few weeks but I don’t feel as productive and my motivation has plummeted. Previously, I was enjoying a hybrid working arrangement of one to two days in the office. Having that flexibility since the pandemic had become really important to me, and I had noticed a positive difference to my overall wellbeing. But I don’t know if I have a strong enough case to put in a flexible working request, plus I’m worried what my colleagues will think if I talk about my lack of productivity, especially as I work in HR. How can I tackle this? I love my role and don’t want to quit.” 

Clare, 31

Hybrid working is a particularly hot topic right now. Employers and employees all across the world are battling with the new reality of work in our post-pandemic era. In fact, I recently attended a conference on this very topic, hosted by leadership and HR experts, and many attendees shared your reluctance to return to the office full-time. The expert panel made a convincing case for hybrid working being the future.

So, first, let me give you an overview of current thinking. We are now living in an almost full-employment society, which means the pendulum of power has swung back to the employee from the boss class. That’s good news for you. Hiring, rehiring and retraining are expensive practices so a smart boss wants to keep staff happy, motivated and less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. We all know that working from home during the pandemic ushered in seismic changes for office culture. We found ourselves challenging the concept of rush hour and questioning the value of travelling to an office if we can just as easily complete tasks without leaving home.

The old-fashioned reason for us all to be in one physical space was deemed to boil down to one word: trust. How could the boss be sure we were working our allotted hours if no one could see what we were up to? WFH during the pandemic blew that fear straight out of the water as survey after survey has proved that productivity actually increased during this time and, if anything, employees noticed a lack of boundaries between work and personal lives. 

Post-pandemic, many industries are experiencing what has become known as The Great Resignation, where staff are leaving jobs in their droves seeking meaning, purpose and flexibility. This has forced employers to re-evaluate everything about where, when, why and how we work. Even though the internet has been with us for almost 40 years, it seems only now that we are recognising the full advantage of staying connected wherever we are.

Which is why your feelings about returning full-time to an office space are not only valid, but indeed the new norm as you are placing a renewed value on your time. Insightful companies have discovered that autonomy around time management is the key to staff job satisfaction. They have learned that there is a two-way street of trust and clarity between bosses and their teams. While a boss needs to be clear about what is expected, teams need the independence to produce the work. And there are even more radical ideas being rolled out: just this week, a permanent four-day week trial (while being paid for five days) has been introduced across a wide range of sectors from banking to digital and charities.

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Bosses, like in your company, who are less supportive of hybrid work are perhaps those who feel their employees need to come together for collaboration and idea brainstorming. We can probably agree that creative thinking does not work as well on a virtual call as it does in person. Those water-cooler moments have a value that is way beyond what happened on last night’s Love Island. Chatting unguardedly to a colleague can often lead to that eureka moment – and that’s something that shall be forever precious.

As a member of the HR team who loves your work, you are in a perfect position to influence your workplace culture. I suggest you raise the topic in your next team meeting, and prime colleagues who share your views to also speak up. You need to find a way of informing your less enthusiastic colleagues about the accepted new wisdom that an office should be used for relationship building, mentoring staff and fostering a sense of belonging. This means that if a company such as yours wants people in the office, it needs to refine the purpose into something that will excite and motivate people.

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Learning and development, for example, are good reasons to come together in person. I would recommend suggesting your team considers rolling out a regular employee survey where experiences and recommendations are monitored and actioned. “People first” has to be the lens of the new workplace where mental health and wellness are key. Make this the focus of your survey so that senior management will gradually be persuaded about the value of hybrid working through fact-based data. And start encouraging your own team to rethink the purpose of coming together in a physical space.

You are clearly very committed to your job and don’t want to quit. It’s a question of gradually educating colleagues and team leaders that they need to adjust their thinking by moving away from measuring output and more towards measuring outcomes instead. I think you could get the ball rolling by also suggesting a brainstorming day where all of the above is explored and debated. Now that would be an excellent day’s work in the office. 

The Honest Boss has held senior management positions at some of the world’s most well-respected companies. With over 25 years of experience under her belt directing and mentoring teams of people around the globe, managing multi-million-pound budgets and representing brands on the international stage, she’s more than qualified to help sort out your work woes. So, whether you’re feeling overlooked for a promotion, struggling with being back in the office or you’ve thrown up in front of your manager, The Honest Boss is here to give you no-bullshit career advice.

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