Many of us are still facing the common post-pandemic challenge: how and when should we be getting staff to come in to the office.
We first looked at this problem last year in our blog: Reluctant returners: How to support staff getting back to the office. But since then, the issue has not gone away and opposing views on what is better – a return to full-time in the office or home/hybrid working – appears to have become more entrenched.
Hybrid working (a mixture of both home and office working) is undoubtedly very popular with many staff for obvious economic and lifestyle reasons. Until recently, many companies seemed relaxed about letting staff dictate their own working patterns – the days they worked from home, when they worked their hours and the number of days they came into the office.
However, many businesses find, for good operational reasons, that they need to impose some structure and certainty and want people/ teams in the physical office space more often, even if not five days a week.
Osborne Clarke have recently made the news stipulating that attendance in the office is a requirement to be considered for bonus, and BNP Paribas has told staff that it is using data from entry-gate swipes and logins to its computer network to track whether they are hitting targets on working from the office. Smaller businesses are also facing this challenge, although they’re generally not being as draconian.
Staff are resistant; what can you do?
For many, they have got used to far less commuting, they may feel they work better from home and don’t see the need to reconnect physically with their colleagues. Others, often parents or those with other responsibilities, are finding they can manage their work/ life/ responsibility juggle much better if they aren’t needed in an office every day.
Here are our tips for navigating this conundrum and keeping everyone happy:
Understand your staff’s concerns:
Acknowledge concerns and find out what the sticking points are. If you understand the specific reasons why people don’t want to come back you are more likely to be able to find a solution. For example, if you find out the issue is purely related to the costs of travel, could you offer to help with these (even temporarily)?
Customise extra support for those who need it:
Get confidential, individual feedback from the workforce about their needs and preferences and use this to make any necessary adjustments to your return to office strategy. For example, those with caring responsibilities may need some extra time and flexibility to help them adapt to the new requirements.
Watch out for flexible working requests:
Employees are entitled to formally request flexible working, subject to certain conditions and employers must properly consider all such requests. This could include a request to work from home and where staff are currently doing this, it could be difficult to reject such requests lawfully – you can’t just say no, you must be able to show one of the eight statutory reasons for doing so. Changes to the flexible working legislation are expected next year, including allowing employees to make two flexible working requests every 12 months (up from the current one).
Communicate your return to the office plans transparently and in good time so everyone has time to adjust. Be clear about the reasons why it is required such as to better enable training, to assist with collaborative work, to improve productivity or help cement corporate culture more effectively? Also be clear about exactly how you are asking people to work differently. For example, are you simply saying they must now come in three days a week rather than two?
Make the office somewhere staff want to be:
Is the office as attractive and comfortable as it could be? Consider the enhancements you could realistically make, depending on budget. Even low costs ideas such as treating everyone in the office to coffee and doughnuts one morning a week might help entice people in.
Consider what flexibility you can continue to offer your staff? Highlight this as a perk. For example, can you implement performance metrics which focus on results rather than hours spent in the office? Can you allow staff the freedom to decide when they arrive and leave the office (within reason) so they still feel they have some independence and control?
Nudge using benefits and perks:
Can you align bonus entitlement or introduce a new benefit linked to attendance at the office? But, be careful to ensure these are not indirectly discriminatory.
Consider what legal tools you can use:
Where all reasonable persuasion has failed, the last resort is likely to involve looking at the employment terms of relevant staff and reminding them of their contractual obligations. Understand whether any changes during Covid were official or whether they were stated to be temporary? If your contracts still state that staff’s main place of work is the office, then you are entitled to enforce this. If staff continue to resist you may have to consider taking disciplinary action. Where staff have been hired on remote or hybrid contracts then you will need to obtain agreement from staff to amend these terms. Both scenarios should be approached with caution and specific legal advice should be obtained before acting.
It’s a tricky balancing act. Push staff too hard and they may vote with their feet and leave. In a tight labour market this obviously needs to be avoided. Worse, the way in which staff are ‘encouraged’ to return could result in claims of constructive dismissal. However, with a little patience and planning, encouraging (most) staff to return to the office more regularly can be achieved harmoniously. Internal communication which strikes the right tone is likely to be the key.