Can the five-day return to office be made a success?

Boots is the latest business to turn its back on hybrid working altogether, but leaders must approach the return to office carefully if they are to keep staff engaged

Boots Is Making A Return To Five Days In The Office

Boots’ CEO Seb James declared there was “no doubt” in his mind that the office is the best place to work as he announced that the business will be scrapping its current hybrid strategy earlier this month.

Under the changes, 3,900 of the retailer’s office-based staff will have to commute into work five days a week, starting from September.

Boots is not alone in making this decision. Construction giant Laing O’Rourke has ordered staff to return to the office full time from April, as has Grand Theft Auto game-maker Rockstar.

In fact, 63% of UK CEOs surveyed by KPMG in October last year predicted a full return to in-office working by 2026, while four in ten companies have already reverted to this setup, according to Virgin Media O2’s Business Movers Index.

While the transition from pandemic-enforced remote working arrangements has been gradual, the direction of change has remained consistent as companies have slowly increased their expectations around the number of days staff should be in the office.

The cultural imperative

CEOs have consistently referred to the impact on culture when providing a reason for the return to the office. Announcing the change of Boots’ policy, James told staff: “The informal conversations, brief catch-ups and ability to meet in groups in person has been far more effective – and better for our unique Boots culture – than the enforced formality of remote meetings. I know that has been true for me.” 

Maintaining culture is a “top concern” for HR and business leaders, according to Caitlin Duffy, research director in Gartner’s human resources practice. “There’s a sense that culture needs to be absorbed by osmosis and everyone needs to be in the same environment to really participate in it,” she says. 

There’s a fear that remote workers will not be productive

Many of her clients have struggled to get a “critical mass” of people into the office at the same time when mandating two or three days in the office. The shift towards a five-day return is a direct response to this issue, as many believe that having a consistent rule across the week is the best solution.

However, Gemma Dale, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University who is currently researching flexible and remote work, believes this justification is insincere. “It is entirely possible to have a strong, vibrant culture and highly engaged and productive employees in a remote or hybrid model,” she says. 

Instead, Dale believes that the return to full-time office-based work is primarily due to the experience bias of chief executives – most of whom built successful careers while working from company HQ. For others, it is about leveraging control. “Throughout the history of work there has been a view, from some, that employees will do the minimum that they can get away with, and without supervision will skive,” she adds. “This drives a fear that remote workers will not be productive.” 

For Redemption Roasters, a UK-based purpose-driven coffee brand with 120 employees, the decision to return to five days on site for its 20 office-based workers was down to fairness. Founder Max Dubiel says he didn’t want there to be a “divide” between its office staff and coffee-shop workers, who did not have the option to work from home. “Returning to five days a week in the office also means it’s much easier for employees to split their work and home life, and ensure that a really good work/life balance is achieved,” he adds.

Preserving employee engagement

The challenge of returning to pre-pandemic ways of working has been compared by some to pushing the toothpaste back into the tube. Companies that do enforce a five-day in-office mandate need to be prepared for employee pushback

It’s crucial to emphasise that the transition is not about reverting to old ways of working

Studies show that hybrid working is highly valued by employees and can help companies improve job satisfaction measures and reduce attrition by up to a third. This means employees rarely embrace a decision to move away from it. 

Rockstar employees, for example, urged the company to rethink what they describe as a “reckless decision” to instigate a full-time return to the office. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain was also quick to raise concerns about the impact of Rockstar’s change in policy on its members.

Companies therefore need to thoroughly evaluate the evidence and consider the rationale behind this decision, according to HR consultant and people change and transformation expert Melanie Steel. “It’s crucial to emphasise that the transition is not about reverting to old ways of working but rather adapting to future needs and opportunities,” she says.

Consulting with trade unions and employee listening groups at the earliest stage possible is also advised. Steel stresses the need for employers to be open to compromises, such as providing a longer transition period or additional support for employees who may not be ready to return to the office full-time. 

Good communication and a clear outline for the transition plan, which should be shared with employees well in advance of the change, are key.

There are also legal obligations that businesses must observe – particularly if employees were recruited under a remote or hybrid arrangement. In these instances, changing their place of work to a head office would amount to “a significant change of terms for which you would need a clear and strong business case”, according to Gill McAteer, director of employment law at Citation.

Employees with disabilities or caring responsibilities, for example, are also protected under the Equality Act. McAteer explains: “Under this act, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to working practices and environments to ensure such employees aren’t at a disadvantage, and have the support they need to work comfortably in the office environment.”

Last year, Nationwide was ordered to pay more than £350,000 in compensation to a former employee – who was also a carer to her elderly mother – after she was made redundant following her refusal to return to the office. “Anyone managing a business will need to be mindful that there is also a risk of indirect sex discrimination claims where the need for flexible arrangements are connected to childcare responsibilities,” McAteer adds. 

Changes to the rules around flexible working requests and carer’s leave, which come into place from next month, will further complicate matters. 

Making five days the new norm

In order to support the transition, businesses may consider making improvements to the office environment and upskilling managers. 

Boots, for example, has promised to upgrade its IT systems, increase access to video conferencing tools, speed up its wifi, create more “quiet spaces”, improve car parking, and look at “how to make our food better” ahead of its September return. It will hope these changes will make the office a more attractive place to work than employees’ homes.

Middle managers will also have to be prepared as they will likely have to bear the brunt of any resistance. Business leaders must therefore offer guidance on managing challenges such as resignations, grievances, or other issues that may arise during the transition period, Steel says, as well as supporting them in adapting to new ways of working.

Regular pulse checks are also a vital tool for gauging employee sentiment and identifying issues. If the return to five days in the office comes at the detriment of the business, CEOs must be prepared to reverse their decision. Duffy says: “A lot of organisations walked back on these requirements because they saw spikes in attrition, increased disengagement and a generally negative response from employees.”

While it remains to be seen whether more companies follow the likes of Boots in returning to five days in the office, Dale notes: “The progress we have made in flexible forms of work over the last four years should not be taken for granted and is potentially fragile.” Many organisations will likely wait to see how these companies perform in regards to talent retention and attraction before instigating a full return to office themselves.

5 steps to making a five-day return to the office a success

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