Why don’t employees want to return to the office?

Are organisations creating conflict with their own staff when it comes to where they work?

It’s a question that came into stark focus recently when Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, visited the UK Government’s Whitehall offices.

He found the offices virtually empty with many civil servants completing their daily duties remotely. This prompted him to leave calling cards on the vacant desks, and also write to cabinet ministers urging them to coerce staff into a “rapid return to the office”.

Needless to say, this didn’t exactly go down well with everyone. Whilst there are multiple benefits to working in a shared workspace, the popularity and value of remote working to employees is something that cannot be simply dismissed.

employee back to work

In spring 2022 (27 April to 8 May), when guidance to work from home because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had been lifted in Great Britain, 38% of working adults reported having worked from home at some point over the past seven days. Also, figures from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have revealed that the number of people working from home in the UK has tripled since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s clear that a rush to return to ‘normal’ office life since the lifting of COVID-19-based restrictions hasn’t happened. In some cases, employees are openly resisting the calls to return to their desks – choosing instead to quit their jobs, rather than lose the ability to work from anywhere they like.

Discovering the driving forces behind back to office hesitancy

Unfortunately, it’s still the case that some senior managers think employees want to work from home because, well, home is where their creature comforts are! Such as the sofa, the bed, Netflix, games consoles… you get the idea. Homeworking may have its attractions, but it’s clear that for many employees – and businesses – it’s a complex balancing act.

For example, despite the popularity of remote and home working, it seems employees do feel the traditional shared workspace is important. Our recent survey into company culture found that 63% of UK employees believed that it is a key component of positive company culture. For those aged 54 and over, an overwhelming 85% of them said the physical place of work was vital.

Another unexpected result from our survey was that 50% of employees felt hybrid and remote working were not beneficial to supporting great workplace relationships. Rather ominously, nearly 31% of them believed they were outright damaging them.

So, given that shared workspaces are still considered a vital part of the employment experience, why are so many employees hesitant or even outright refusing to return to their traditional workspaces on a full-time basis? Here are some thoughts to consider…

1. Employees feel they are more productive

A study by the BBC found that total employee output at one business was increased by 13% when workers were allowed to work remotely one day a week. In addition, research conducted by LSE Business Review found that employees believed remote working not only boosted their overall productivity, but also reduced the dangers of burnout.

If employees feel there wouldn’t be any demonstrable benefit to their productivity by a full-time return to a shared workspace, they may resent being summoned back.

2. The worsening cost-of-living crisis

As you’ll undoubtedly be aware, global fuel and food prices are causing record rates of inflation and increasing the dangers of an economic recession. Given that virtually everyone is having to watch the pennies right now, the prospect of returning to a daily commute may put employees under further unnecessary financial burden that they cannot afford.

3. Business leaders are not leading by example

Senior leaders and managers must be guiding examples of the behaviours and actions an organisation deems vital to success. But if an organisation’s leaders are demanding a return to a shared workspace, yet continuing to stay away themselves, what kind of message does this send out?

If a business is asking its employees to reduce or give up remote working, it’s not enough to have a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ attitude – it will only foster ill feelings amongst their workforce. Ultimately, it could also lead to increased staff turnover.

4. We’re all becoming more environmentally conscious

The future of our planet and the impact of human activities on the environment is never far from the headlines. With the UK looking to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, working from home instead of driving to work could be one of the core “behavioural changes” needed to help achieve this feat, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Of course, working from home isn’t the magic silver bullet in the fight against climate change. But, many people are now looking to make more environmentally conscious decisions when it comes to living their lives. Depending on circumstances, cutting out the commute may not just help save the pennies, but could also be helping people live more environmentally responsibly.

5. Changed personal priorities

Many of us discovered that a daily commute was old-fashioned, unnecessary (in many instances) and often a huge physical and emotional drain. The sheer amount of time devoted to commuting can make a huge impact in someone’s work-life balance.

It’s understandable then, that employees who’ve not had to commute for the past couple of years would be non-plussed or perhaps tempted to quit if they were asked to return to such a routine. This thinking can be backed up by a recent Bloomberg study. It found that 39% of adults would rather leave their job than give up working from home.

6. Remote communications can be just as effective as in-person meetings

Lastly, while physical meetings are a good opportunity to exchange ideas, data or work updates, for many employees, virtual sessions can be just as effective. The rise and development of online collaborative platforms has meant that needing to be in the same room as colleagues for every meeting isn’t always necessary.

There will be times when bringing people together makes sense, especially given there is evidence to suggest that face-to-face meetings can result in better outcomes. But, if employees feel they’re having to commute into work for meetings or duties that could have easily been done virtually, they may feel both their time and money is being wasted.

What can HR do?

Clearly, it’s imperative organisations strike the right balance of remote, hybrid and on-site working. While our research found that employees think it is important to have physical workplace and to meet up with colleagues face to face, following the example of Rees-Mogg is unlikely to be the wisest course of action.  So, taking the time to investigate and evaluate your own workforce’s thoughts on the matter can really help guide how your flexible working policies need to evolve.

Encouraging front-line managers to have open conversations with their teams about the subject is a great way to begin gauging employee sentiment towards current or planned working practices.

Another effective way to evaluate your employee’s feelings is to conduct a pulse survey. A pulse survey can allow you to get definitive answers to the questions that matter most to both you and your people, and where they work day-to-day is likely something they’ll have an opinion on!

Questions you could ask include:

  • On a scale of 0-10 (with 0 being of no value), how valuable do you find face-to-face meetings?
  • How happy are you with the office environment?
  • On a scale of 0-10 (with 0 being extremely poor, 10 being excellent), how would you rate your work-life balance?

When asking pulse survey questions, always keep in mind that the questions must be scored or answered on a five-point Likert scale.

Another significant benefit of pulse surveys is that they let you track how opinions change over time. Having answers to these types of questions will help you take the approach that is in everyone’s best interests.

You may also be interested in...

Sign up to our newsletter