Should employers mandate a full return to office?

'It undermines everything positive that we discovered that remote working can offer': researcher

Should employers mandate a full return to office?

Sixty-four per cent of chief executives believe there will be a full return to the office in three years, according to KPMG’s 2023 CEO Outlook report.

The report involved a survey of 1,325 CEOs from 11 countries including Australia, Canada, the United States, China, and Japan. And it also highlighted how CEOs are looking to entice workers back into the office.

“What’s more, 87% of CEOs say they are likely to reward employees who make an effort to come into the office with favourable assignments, raises or promotions,” the report said.

But is a mandate to return to the office the way to go?

The challenges of a full return-to-office

Iva Durakovic, lecturer in the interior architecture program at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), believes it would be “inequitable” to mandate that employees return to the office full time.

“I think it’s not a good idea,” she told HRD Australia. “It undermines everything positive that we discovered that remote working can offer an organisation in terms of talent pools, in terms of innovation, in terms of equity and diversity of the workforce, which has its own benefits.”

Durakovic’s research focuses on the behavioural impact of workplace design.

“There's research that we've done and [we’ve] spoken to people who are classified as disabled in some way,” she said. “And they were saying, ‘This is the first time that I've been able to work full time. Because I can do [it] remotely whereas I'm just not physically able to be in an office five days a week. But I'm perfectly capable of doing a very good job of what I do now for my manager.’ And so you're cutting them back into a disadvantage position.”

According to a survey by Robert Half, nearly nine in 10 Australian businesses have implemented mandatory return-to-office policies, with a majority of them requiring staff back at least four days a week.

Some organisations have been looking at different ways to get staff back in the office, with Amazon reportedly including office return compliance in its promotion assessment.

And this month, ANZ warned staff in Australia, New Zealand, India and the Philippines that their pay could be impacted if they did not work from the office 50% of the time, according to news.com.au.

For managers who may be calling on their employees to return to the office – and they don’t – Durakovic said there might be a strong reason why. She suggested managers think about why their employees may not want to come back.

“Is there a problem with our culture? Is there a problem with the environment that we start asking people to come back to? Are there other factors that we can address which is going to make this process easier for them [to return]?” she said.

“The majority of the trend that we've seen over the past three years – every survey that's asking people how many days would you prefer to work at home – it's sitting around the two, three-day split. And that hasn't shifted. People are not asking for a complete abandonment of an office, they’re just asking for flexibility. And, really, we should be able to figure this out in a better way.”

Improving hybrid working

Durakovic’s research highlights that hybrid working needs to be improved. She explained that the nature of humans means the first time we do something requires a heavy cognitive load, before it becomes more automatic over time.

“Hybrid working would be no different in the sense that we have for decades, or in some people's cases, their whole careers, been used to working at a fixed desk with computers in front of us and a meeting room off to the side,” Durakovic said. “And you do certain tasks in certain ways, and you're there from nine to five. You've become wired to that, and you've figured out your own way of getting things done within those parameters.

“Hybrid just moved us to a new environment. Again, we very quickly figured it out. Because we know the outcome that we're trying to achieve and we've got certain skills in getting our work done. The technology and the tools might change. Initially that's hard and it's a bit clunky and we test a few times to figure out our own way and we create new habits. This is an ongoing evolution process, it's no different to anything else that we learn.”

And it’s not just about employees trying to optimise the process, Durakovic said it also comes down to the management of hybrid working. But she acknowledged the challenges of managing a hybrid workforce.

“Certainly, on the financial front, not only as an organisation do you need to deliver what you need to deliver and make a profit to keep people employed,” she said. “There's also the uncertainty of ‘what does our space needs to look like? How much more are we going to need? How much less are we going to need? What do we need to do to it to accommodate and support hybrid working?’”

Durakovic’s other research involved observing Mirvac’s ‘Adaptive Workplace’ pilot. During the pilot, different business units rotated through a hybrid workspace in Sydney’s George Street every four to six weeks, to see how teams collaborated and how managers lead their teams.

In that scenario, one effective strategy for hybrid working was to have the right space for the right task, Durakovic said.

 “Being able to match those two is the golden rule in effectiveness in productivity, in employee satisfaction, in all of those outcomes that we're seeking to achieve,” she said.

HR and workplace flexibility

For HR teams looks to support their employees who prefer a hybrid work style, Durakovic believes they should offer psychological safety.

“That just because they're choosing and needing and wanting to do flexible hours, flexible location – a hybrid model – that they're not suddenly disadvantaged,” she said.

“I think it's really [about] making them feel like it's safe for them to state their needs. And then negotiate a reasonable plan to try and accommodate that.”

Durakovic also emphasised the need to have a framework around how performance would be managed.

“So there's responsibility on both sides to keep to their side of the deal and deliver what they need to deliver,” she said. “That doesn't get thrown out of the equation at all – there's performance management either way. But it's around that psychological safety, that they're not suddenly going against the tide or doing something that is not preferred but will be tolerated.”

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