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The five key rules of the return to the office

Autumn is seeing more people return to their workplace - but it is not like before and there are some rows and tensions

The roads are busier. So are the trains and buses. Office workers are going back to their workplace — but it is not like before. Here are the five rules of the return to the office.

1. It’s hybrid not remote. Words are important and most employers are underlining that their approach is to accommodate a new hybrid model. “This is important to send out a message that the office is still the main place of work,” according to the chief executive of one of Dublin’s largest office employers. That does not mean that in some cases remote working — where people are not expected to be in the office most of the time — will not be facilitated. Employees have a legal right to ask for remote work, after all. But employers are pushing for employees to be back in the office at least some of the time.

It is a balance. Most employers are keen to see the office as a key place of work, but in a tight labour market realise that losing key employees or not attracting new ones can be a risk. When Apple boss Tim Cook sought to get employees back three days a week earlier this year he met significant resistance, and the resignation of at least one key member of his management team.

In a variety of surveys, most employers report that productivity improved or at least held steady during the complete remote working phase. The move back to a hybrid model now is designed to address the problems that emerged during remote working for people management, innovation and team-working — and the feeling of isolation felt by some. But it is a tricky management job — in a recent major UK survey two thirds of companies said they were having trouble getting at least some of their employees back to the office. Some are rushing back while others never want to see the office again. Some say they work much better in the quiet of home — others prefer the more traditional office setting. There is no one-size solution which will keep everyone happy.

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2. Come in to meet your team. A key question post-Covid is how to get the correct level of in-person interaction — seen as important for organising, innovation and just for restoring some of the normal face to face contact, particularly important for newer team members. Rebuilding social capital — and social connections- is seen as vital by both companies and many employees, according to a recent survey of 20,000 companies by Microsoft, which also analysed data on the use of its products for remote and hybrid working trends.

So while the “rules” being set by different companies differ, a common emerging approach is to expect people from the same group or team to have at least one day a week when they are in their office together. This allows team meeting as well as face-to-face interaction. One Dublin professional said that this day was important and useful for catching up and having a team gathering, but that he hoped to continue to do most of his concentrated work at home. The Microsoft survey showed that social connections from returning to the office were, not surprisingly, particularly valued by younger people. In contrast those with small children or other caring responsibilities are often less keen to return to the office.

Employment experts say that it is vital to give people a purpose for the return to the workplace — to make it worth their while to undertake the commute again. Team meetings and interacting with colleagues in a pleasant environment are two such reasons. This can be particularly valuable for newer employees.

3. The two-day/three-day tension point. People have got used to working from home over the past 2½ years — so some disagreements about the return to work are inevitable. For now, working arrangements seem to vary from organisations who are — initially anyway — seeking a return of a minimum one day a week to those who want to see employees in the office most of the time. In many cases the pinch point seems to be in the two- to three-day area.

A survey by the CIPD published early this year showed that two thirds of companies had developed policies for hybrid working — around one third of employers expect employees in the office three days a week and roughly the same number wanted them back for two days. Where to land in this debate seems to be important for employees as the return to work progresses — it is the difference between spending most of the time in work, or most of it at home. The CIPD survey points out that whatever about surviving through the pandemic, a question for employers is whether they have a sustainable infrastructure for long-term hybrid working and whether managers are trained to manage remote employees.

Interestingly the CIPD survey also showed increasing employer awareness of the need to develop a policy in relation to whether employees need to reside in the State. Some employers are offering the opportunity to choose to work for a part of the year from abroad as a way to attract key talent.

4. The midweek week. Tuesday to Thursday have fast emerged as the most popular days to be in the office. Traffic seems noticeably lighter on commuter routes on Mondays and Fridays and city centre coffee shops and restaurants report that those days are quieter — turnover is 20 per cent or more lower according to a number in the central Dublin office district. In turn this means that Thursday is the new Friday for office nights out, or for going for a drink after work.

5. Welcome to the hybrid meeting. We all got used to everyone being on Zoom. Now bigger office meetings typically have some people in person and some on zoom. This brings new questions — employment expert Caroline Reidy of the HR Suite has warned that chairing — or hosting — such mixed meetings offer new challenges for managers to ensure in particular that those joining remotely feel fully involved and do not feel they are just looking in. Everyone is no longer on the Covid-19 level playing field of a completely remote meetings.

Reidy has also warned against what’s become known as presenteeism bias — managers favouring employees who are in the office most of the time for promotion or for plum assignments.

For managers — and employees — hybrid working presents a whole new era for their interactions. The Microsoft research, which also assessed huge amounts of data on the use of its products, say that managers need not have so-called productivity paranoia about people working from outside the office. Most managers feel that employees working remotely are not as productive as they should be, the research find, but employees feel the opposite. The use of its products indicate that people were busy on the computers and in meetings. However, the research found from employees the need for clear direction on what work needs to be prioritised and what is expected of them, particularly when working from home.

The bottom line is that we are looking at a major workplace revolution. As well as implications for how many people spend their days, it also has wider importance for city centre economies — which will see less footfall than in pre-pandemic days — and for the commercial property market.