On Feb 23 2022 / by Wyoming Paul

Return to the office or full-time remote: The risks of a black and white approach

While some companies believe it’s time to resume business as usual with a complete return to the office, others have enjoyed the cost savings and increased productivity of a remote workforce. However, both of these approaches often have significant downsides for businesses and employees, and business consultants believe that a flexible approach designed specifically for your people will have the best long-term results.

To find out more, we talked to three experts about the benefits and downsides of each approach. David Shirley is a Partner and Co-Founder of Flex We Are, Australia's leading flexible workplace consultancy, Kalyn Ponti is the CEO of HR services agency Humankind, and Kursty Groves is a workplace strategist and advisor to FTSE 100 companies, high growth SMEs and Government Departments. She is also the founder of Shape, a consulting firm that specialises in co-creating the best places to work. Here's what they have to say.

Risk it: A full return

Some businesses have stated that they are planning to go back to the office full-time once Covid restrictions allow. It may seem perfectly reasonable that once some sense of ‘normality’ resumes, businesses should be able to return to their pre-Covid expectations and work models. However, now that staff have experienced the benefits of remote working, taking that option away again is not a decision to be made flippantly.

We all know the labour market is tight at the moment. Great talent is harder to come by and employees have more leverage. Research has shown that flexibility is a top priority for people when looking for work, and that around 40% of people are currently looking to move jobs - making it clear what the implications are if you decide to mandate a full return to the office.

One EY survey indicated that 54% of surveyed employees from around the world would consider leaving their job if they were not given some flexibility in terms of both where and when their work gets done.

Not only can flexibility, or the lack thereof, be a significant dealbreaker, but mandating a return to the office after months of flexible working can be seen by some employees as a lack of trust, or something that will impact their work-life balance.

“Some companies want their people back in the office because they don’t trust their employees, with that idea of – if I can’t see you, how do I know you’re working?” David Shirley explains. “But then what did they do over the last 18 months?” As an employee, feeling trusted is an important factor to consider.

Risk it: Fully remote

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some businesses have seen the boost in productivity and cost savings of a remote workforce, and plan to make remote working a permanent change.

However, Kursty explains that a fully remote workforce simply isn’t a solution that works for everyone, all the time.

“Remote working saw a rise in Zoom fatigue, people experiencing burnout, and a lack of boundaries between work, home and life. We also saw that there are diversity issues, in terms of senior people having a great work from home set up and more space, and at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who are house sharing and they’re literally perching on the edge of their bed on a laptop.”

Home environments differ vastly in terms of things like set-up and facilities, flatmates or children, volume, lighting, temperature and air flow. For some employees, or just for certain tasks of a job, the office is a much better place to get work done, as well as providing a space for more culture-engagement and social connection that can’t be found at home.

Surprisingly, the single biggest predictor of workplace productivity and engagement is not what we’re doing, but who we’re working with. When we feel close to our team members, we’re uniquely motivated to take actions that benefit the business and lead to innovation. For example, by shifting the percentage of people with work best friends from 20 percent to 60 percent, companies can achieve a 12% increase in profits.

“While connection and relationship building is possible virtually and there are so many creative things we’re seeing happen, we really feel there is a different level of connection that happens in person. It really makes a huge difference in terms of building trust and psychological safety,” says Kalyn Ponti, CEO of Humankind.

Reap the rewards: A hybrid approach

Flexibility is empowering. Taking the time to create a hybrid working model that works for your organisation gives people the best of both worlds. It can give people the freedom to work at home when it suits them, while the option of the office space is fantastic for collaboration, connection and culture-building.

Although you’ll have a higher corporate footprint and operating costs than if you went fully remote, costs can still be reduced if you choose to rethink your office space. Flexibility can lead to the ability to downsize your office space and reduce lease costs, while still retaining a central hub for collaboration, team bonding, and culture building.

Plus, giving your people the freedom to make choices about how, when and where they work best often leads to increased productivity. In fact, Gartner found that organisations with high levels of flexibility are almost three times more likely to see high employee performance.

Implementing flexible working successfully

Even if you don’t know what your working model will look like yet, communicating to your staff that you are taking a flexible approach and are interested in hearing their perspectives on what would be best for them is a positive move in itself. People want to feel heard, valued and cared for at work, and this is a great opportunity to showcase your values and build deeper levels of trust and listening within your teams.

Kursty Groves suggests taking the time to think about what truly matters for your organisation and your goals for the future. Then, use that knowledge to establish more meaningful ways of measuring performance that have no connection to office attendance, and to assess what your office space needs most.

Get to know your people, what they need, and make sure the office is set up for that. This could mean downsizing, creating a mixture of open plan spaces, meeting rooms, and bookable and shareable car parks.

Finally, creating a flexible hybrid model really does set you up for your future as a successful business. Your people will be happier and more productive, your organisation will instantly become more attractive to new talent, your costs are reduced, and learning to constantly adapt will prepare you to be resilient and flexible with every new challenge that arises.

The CEO, CFO and CHO - they’re all happy.