While remote working was not an entirely rare practice before the pandemic, there is no debate that the lockdowns have made it much more popular. As of November 2022, 38% of British workers said they had worked from home in the previous seven days. After experiencing the benefits of remote working, it's understandable why many employees are hesitant to return to the office, especially on a full-time basis. Some are going as far as looking for a new job if their current company if they are no longer working from home as much as they would like to. We get into the nitty gritty of the exact pros and cons of remote versus office working, so that you can see where you can improve to make office working with your company more attractive if you do decide it's a necessity.
First though, it's important to know what the law says about this:
Can employees legally refuse to return to work in the office?
This varies depending on the situation. An employer owes their employees a duty of care. If an employer has put all reasonable precautions in place, is complying with every safety measure, and risk assessments have been carried out, then unless there is a medical reason for an employee's concerns about returning, the employer may consider them to be on unauthorised absence that could result in disciplinary action.
The law is very clear on the fact that if staff feel their place of work is not safe, then they would be protected when taking certain measures, including refusing to attend an office. Those organisations which fail to consider protected characteristics (such as pregnancy) or health and safety concerns, put themselves at risk of serious financial and reputational damage. If an employee is treated unfairly, dismissed or they choose to resign as a result of any poor treatment they receive after raising health and safety issues, then they may have a claim against their employer under the Employment Rights Act 1996.
So, why are employers losing their employees to office returns?
Work-life balance has become more important
Many employees have a desire to work remotely after experiencing or hearing about the positive benefits it can have on their work-life balance. While each individual circumstance is different, it's easy to see why a worker may now refuse to take a long commute every morning and evening. Hubble's survey found that 79% of respondents named the lack of commute as one of the best things about working from home.
And it goes beyond the commute. When people are able to spend time with the family pet while they work in their pyjama trousers, take care of any pressing house chores during their breaks, and be able to flop onto the sofa once they're off the clock, it's not difficult to see the allure and comfort of the flexibility remote work provides. This could be a particular bonus for employees who have difficult schedules, such as those who are single parents having to arrange childcare or a carer for a relative. In these cases, the remote work model can greatly improve the employee satisfaction of these individuals and allow your company to retain talent.
Although you can only make so much change to the circumstances of travelling and coming into the workplace to make it work more conveniently for these employees, offering them a flexible hybrid model of remote work and office days could be the solution. This is where they can pick the days in the week or month when they would be returning to the face-to-face workplace. You could also make flexi-time part of their working model. Though they will still be working the same overall amount as you need them to, flexi-time will allow them to come into the office at 11am or leave at 4pm for example.
They produce a higher quality of work when they are at home full-time
In the peace and familiarity of their own home employee's may find they are more focused when they are able to work remotely. Offices can have a lot going on, from noise to being approached too regularly by colleagues for them to get their own work done. The chattiness and activity of office life can be something many people really enjoy, especially when they only experience it a couple times a week or month, but for others it can be tiring, leading to them being put of by the return to the workplace and possibly choosing to refuse to return post pandemic. Individuals who are neurodiverse, such as those with ADHD, can find their productivity may suffer when consistently working in an office.
Accommodations for these kinds of experiences can be made by allowing people to bring earphones to listen to white noise or music so they can filter out the noise more easily when returning to the office. Some offices have also added quiet working areas where people can go and complete their work with minimal distractions.
While these can be helpful to some people, some of your top talent will likely still see higher productivity and lower stress levels when working from home, so employer's should seriously consider the flexibility of a WFH model to retain these employees.
Unattractive or toxic office culture
While it may be an uncomfortable thought, it's key that you evaluate the current state of your workplace culture when considering why you may be losing staff due to office returns. This can be impacted by a numbers of things, including poor communication, a hyper-competitive attitude, and bullying behaviour. These kind of issues take a lot of effort and time to fix, and employees shouldn't be expected to continue to put up with these problems, especially since they are usually worse in person. If you want your top talent to stay with you as an employer, let alone consider coming into the office, these issues cannot remain unresolved.
Rethinking how and who you hire to prevent individuals with toxic behaviours entering your workforce in the first place is necessary to prevent the pattern continuing. Disciplinary action may be necessary for some individuals, such as if they have been found to be participating in bullying behaviour or abuse of power. It's important that those in positions of leadership are acting as examples of your core company values. On top of these main actions, offering refreshers or updated versions of training and awareness courses on the issues in your culture (such as respect for example) as well as team building activities could be helpful.
The culture of your workplace and how it will impact each individual worker is something that you should continue to monitor after you've put in place new precautions and practices to improve it, to ensure they stick.
The financial costs of transport into a place of employment can be a significant burden for some employees. Any associated costs, such as for a significant amount of attire too match an office dress code, food, and childcare can be concerns. It's not always in the best financial interest of the company to open their office full-time either.
There are many reasons for an employee to prefer working remotely and be put off a return to the office. The best path for many employees and employers is to try and negotiate a situation where everyone feels safe and content. For example, if your workplace is trying to return to three days per week in the office, an adjustment could be made to allow staff members to only come in once a week on the day that makes the most sense for them to see people face to face. There are many pros and cons for both face to face and remote working, varying greatly on individual circumstance, so it can never hurt to make reasonable allowances for your people who need it.
If you are considering going fully remote, you might be interested in our remote employee onboarding checklist.