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“Get back into the office!” – the latest risk to engagement?

Culture | Employee Experience | Engagement | Return to the workplace

Posted on: Tuesday May 30, 2023

Over the past few years, the world of work has changed almost beyond recognition. Since returning to work after the pandemic, organisations have had a “hokey cokey” approach to flexible working:

  • Out: during the pandemic (except those who had key worker or front-line roles)
  • In: often driven by the intuition of individual senior leaders – without consulting their employees
  • Out: the reaction to the above resulted in a hybrid form of working for many organisations, or complete choice for employees in others.

Recent conversations with some clients, friends and family have suggested that “in” is the latest status in vogue for business leaders. This view has been enhanced by Jeremy Hunt’s recently shared view that the default “location” for staff should be in the office, and of several organisations recently instructing staff to go back into the office. Again, this appears to being driven largely by the whims of senior stakeholders – often with no clear messaging as to why this should be the case.

Why is this such a concern?

Expectations have changed from employees. Word has got around that large numbers of organisations offer flexible working – ranging from remote working practices to working hours, job shares, part-time work and even “term-time” working arrangements.

If organisations try to force employees back into the office, this represents a significant risk to the bottom line for many organisations in terms of staff engagement – and to recruitment/retention levels.

Employees will likely view the lack of flexibility as a cross in the box of the wider Employee Value Proposition. With flexible working often seen by employees and candidates as an expectation, rather than a differentiator, this may put the organisation at risk of being out of touch with competitors.

Other risks include:

  • Limiting the talent pools your organisation appeals to in terms of physical location in relation to your office;
  • Potentially harming your efforts in relation to the gender pay gap, in that research has shown flexible working is particularly valued for females above their male counterparts;
  • Presenting a barrier to the effectiveness of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives – where similarly to gender pay, research has shown minority demographics often benefit from flexible working arrangements and employee choice; and
  • Reducing trust in the organisation – particularly if the reasons for returning to the office are not clearly communicated to staff.

Communication is key

More and more, our clients are having conversations with us about how to position and communicate different initiatives across reward and the employee experience. Our view is that by having the ‘adult conversation’, employees are more likely to understand decisions made (even if they do not necessarily agree with them). This in turn reduces the risk of disengagement.

One way to mitigate the specific risks raised above is to clearly communicate the reasons (and benefits) as to why organisations prefer staff to be in the office more commonly than not – whether those reasons related to organisational culture, ways of working, or wider productivity.

In providing transparency on these decisions, it will be less likely that all the hard work organisations have done implementing flexible working since the pandemic does not get undone.

It is critical that organisations have well-thought-out guiding principles embedded in the organisation and in line with their values, in order to guide conversations and decisions relating to flexible working – and how that fits into the wider Employee Value Proposition.

Continuously changing tack will only serve to disengage employees. Forcing them to return to work without communicating the rationale may only end up forcing good employees to look for another job.

Get in touch if you would like to discuss flexible working, transparency or communications, via


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