A part-remote, part-office schedule has been hailed as the future of work. In September 2021, when the UK Government announced an end to the work from home guidance, many employers introduced a permanent hybrid policy in what appeared to have become the norm. However, with the days of the pandemic somewhat behind us, some are now wondering whether it is time to return to the office in earnest and employers are now looking at ways to encourage their workforce back on-site or, as you may have seen in some headlines, ways to discourage remote working. In this blog we will explore where employers stand and the possible methods, they could use to encourage people back into the office without disregard for the flexibility employees have become accustomed to.
The first thing to say here is check your contracts. It is no secret that a large proportion of the workforce changed jobs both during and after the pandemic for more generous working structures, including hybrid working models. If the employment contract between your company and your employee includes any clause providing for remote or hybrid working you need to consider whether such clauses are explicitly clear or leave any room for flexibility. Does the contract detail circumstances in which an employee would be expected to attend the office, for example client meetings, training, team meetings or appraisals? If it transpires that changes to the contract are needed and you decide to unilaterally impose a change of working location without your employee’s consent, you risk acting in breach of contract.
In circumstances where there are no contractual issues or fixes to the matter, it is advisable in the current climate for employers to tread carefully and act in a reasonable and respectful manner when trying to encourage the workforce to return to the office. For the first time ever in the UK, there are more job vacancies than there are people to fill them in spite of the fact that unemployment is at its lowest level for almost 50 years. Employers should therefore be alive to the fact that employees are more willing to jump ship than they have ever been, especially when it comes to flexible and hybrid working models.
When encouraging people back into the office, employers should also have empathy and leaders should communicate to their staff that they understand the mental space people are in. You must recognise and articulate the fact that you are open and willing to engage in discussions with anyone who may have concerns about the transition back to the office. Once these have been considered you can then begin a discussion acknowledging the benefits of coming into work such as connecting and collaborating with peers in real time. You may also wish to note the social and career benefits of returning to the office, for example, it is much harder to mentor people and help to build their skillset when they’re remote. So when people are in the office, supervisors and management should prioritise time with junior employees to make those mentorship opportunities clear.
Asking employees to come back to the office should not necessarily mean an end to flexible working. Employers should make it clear that flexible working policies remain in place and inform their staff about any internal processes to make such requests. In any event, all employees have a legal right to request flexible working and employers must deal with requests in a reasonable manner by assessing the advantages and disadvantages, as well as holding a meeting with the employee to discuss their request.
More and more businesses in the UK are introducing a four-day working week which might prove to be one of the more popular ideas to incentivise a return to the office. There are many arguments to suggest that introducing a four-day week leads to a huge leap in productivity amongst staff, which can surely only mean a happier employer and a happier employee. This is also likely to be a perk to help retain staff in the future.
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