When large numbers of employees fled their offices to work from home at the start of the pandemic, no one gave much thought to how things would pan out when they had to go back. That time has now arrived with some urgency for employers, but a sizeable chunk of the workforce doesn’t want to know.
Incentives to encourage their return, from cash bonuses to cookies and cold beer, have proved unconvincing, with many employees showing a marked reluctance to swap their comfy clothes for workwear and to face the dreaded commute all over again.
This leaves employers with a problem. They want people back, at least some of the time, but asking them politely hasn’t worked. As a result there is now a shift towards mandatory core days, and employers are becoming much clearer about their requirements when defining hybrid working arrangements for new hires.
“We are at stage two of what will probably be a four-stage process to get to a good hybrid working model up and running,” says Finian Buckley, professor of work and organisational psychology at DCU. “Stage one showed us that a significant part of the working population could work from home when needed. Stage two is showing us that stage one is suboptimal for a lot of businesses. As a result, the model is changing as organisations feel their way towards what’s best for them.
“I think what’s become clear is that fully remote only suits a small number of workers such as creatives and knowledge workers and, for the most part, these tend to be people who are 10 or 15 years into their careers with strong networks and well developed relationships with their key stakeholders. For those in the first part of their career, fully remote doesn’t work at all,” Buckley says.
Mass data about the facts and figures of hybrid working is thin on the ground because the process is still evolving. However, workplace software solutions company Capella, which helps companies manage the multiple facets of hybrid working, has been able to identify some trends based on insights gleaned from the 20,000-plus employees using its platform every day to book a desk, arrange a meeting, RSVP to a company event or manage their work-from-home and in-the-office calendars.
Capella’s hybrid working insights report for the first quarter of this year shows that average in-office desk usage is about 17 per cent, with this figure falling to just 5 per cent on Mondays and Fridays and with occasional spikes on anchor days. Occupancy is higher on the days that direct managers and senior leaders are in the office.
In terms of where people are working from when they’re at home, more than 50 per cent are still in their bedrooms, 21 per cent are in the livingroom, 9 per cent are in the diningroom and 18 per cent have a home office.
“Getting people back to the office is a major challenge for many organisations but social momentum is one thing that brings people back – the more people in, the more people will come in. And being able to see who else is in the office in advance is a very human way of creating greater office occupancy,” says Capella chief executive Criona Turley.
Capella draws its clients’ office floor plans in 3D so it looks and feels like their office. As desks are booked, a little image of the employee is attached and their colleagues can see who’s coming in and when. “Maybe some people are suffering a bit of fomo [fear of missing out] or they realise someone they want to talk to is coming in, but whatever the reason, it seems to encourage better attendance,” Turley says.
From the employer’s perspective, having data about occupancy rates is useful for sustainability purposes while closing off underused spaces saves money and makes the in-office experience more social.
Knowing daily headcounts can drive efficiencies such as reduced food waste in the canteen, while it can also show if particular groups – women with childcare responsibilities, for example – are coming into the office less often, with implications for diversity and inclusion and career progression because of proximity bias – those who are seen get promoted.
“The system shows how much time individual employees are spending in the office and at home and will flag outliers such as managers who are bringing their teams in a lot more or a lot less than others,” says Turley. She recalls one case where a manager was asking his team to show up almost every day because he didn’t like his eating habits being scrutinised by his wife when working from home.
When employees are asked what would make them view returning to the office more favourably, a top requirement is a solid reason for being there. It’s got to be about more than bums on seats – and Prof Buckley’s advice to companies using in-office days to build trust or culture is not to fill the time with individual tasks.
“Just let people collaborate, let them spend social time together and don’t roll big projects at them,” he says. “Allow them to get to know the people they may be working with in a hybrid setting because while people can build trust in each other’s competencies remotely, it’s much easier to build trust in the individual and to create psychological safety – where people feel comfortable making mistakes or bouncing a daft idea – face to face.”