Do workers want to return to the office or not?

The jury is still out on whether hybrid working will actually work, while research indicates that most of Europe’s office workers can’t wait to get back to workplaces.

Despite the vast progress in vaccinations, many people who left the office 18 months ago to work from home are still working from home and many – quite understandably – are wondering when the “great return” will eventually happen.

The general consensus is that hybrid working – a mix of remote working and attending the office – will be the way of the future, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

“18 months away from the office has given employees time to re-evaluate what they want from it, so employers will need to adapt”

Many workers are actually in the dark about future hybrid working arrangements, while far-seeing HR professionals are aware that as the war for talent still brews the opportunity to cultivate young Gen Z staff may slip away, with many disillusioned young workers representing a potential “flight risk.”

Many converts to remote working say they’ll never go back to the way it was, while others many crave the return to the office for its optics as well as the social aspects.

So do people want to go back to the office or not?

Various research reports published indicate that hybrid could win out in the long term but also that the office still has a future. That said, the lack of communication is grating on employees’ nerves.

87pc of EMEA workers say the office is still necessary

A young woman at work in an office, taking off medical mask.

Results from a representative Savills Office FiT 2021 survey of over 100,000 landlord and occupier clients and office workers across the UK and EMEA conducted in April 2021 show that 87pc of EMEA workers believe an office is still necessary, with respondents from Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Czech Republic most supportive.

“Current leasing activity in the Dublin market confirms that the future of the office is bright – but it will also be different”

Alternative work locations have gained greater attention, with 19pc of respondents willing to work from a client office (10pc in June 2020’s UK Office FiT survey) and 12pc willing to work from flexible offices (up from 3pc).

The three most desired office design changes are a managed flow of people so that the office occupancy peaks and troughs are balanced (71pc); health and wellbeing initiatives (49pc) and a building application to understand quality of air, book desks, etc. (38pc).

“Current leasing activity in the Dublin market confirms that the future of the office is bright – but it will also be different, as these results reveal,” explained Andrew Cunningham, director of Offices at Savills Ireland.

“18 months away from the office has given employees time to re-evaluate what they want from it, so employers will need to adapt. The office environment needed to change – the pandemic is speeding up this change which, I believe, will ensure it continues to play a key role in working-life.”

Cunningham’s colleague Jeremy Bates, Savills’ EMEA head of Occupational Markets said that whatever the future of work is, the employee will be central.

“Two things stand out for me from our Office FiT 2021 survey results: firstly, even after more than 18 months of the pandemic and various working from home guidance in EMEA during that time, the office is here to stay but, secondly, it needs to change. Employees are looking for their bosses to provide them with a safe and productive environment with the employee at the heart.”

Not only that but young people are still drawn to large cities, says Mike Barnes, associate at Savills’ European Research. : “Since our previous UK survey results published in June last year, the preference to work in a town/city centre has risen from 40pc to 52pc, as lockdown measures have eased and workers seek a return to working in city centres. Similarly, the need for flexibility is on the rise and will become more and more important, as illustrated by the growth in preference for working in client and flexible offices.

“We will see a flight to quality workplaces among occupiers, as companies will use their real estate as a differentiator to secure, and keep, the best talent.”

The hybrid future of work is all mixed up

But even if the physical office remains the focal point for a business’s staff, many will want to hold on to the flexible nature of working that was proven to work through the pandemic.

“The shift in business leaders’ views in relation to the nature of work or, more precisely, where their organisations’ staff will work once the relevant restrictions are lifted is significant”

A new survey of its members by the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Ireland has found that 69pc of business leaders say all staff will work a mix of being in the office/workplace and working remotely (a hybrid model) once the relevant public health restrictions are lifted. Just 8pc indicate that all staff will exclusively work in the office/workplace, while just 2pc indicate that all staff will exclusively work remotely.

The selected advance findings of the IoD’s quarterly Director Sentiment Monitor for Q2 2021, to be published in late August, also reveal that the largest number (46pc) of its respondents sees Q4 2021 as the most likely period when a majority of staff will return to the official workplace. It also finds that 21pc of business leaders see a return of tight public health restrictions caused by the Delta and other COVID-19 variants as the biggest risk to their organisations.

The IoD’s quarterly Director Sentiment Monitor survey for Q2 2021 also finds that the largest number (46pc) of its respondents sees Q4 2021 as the most likely period when a majority of staff will return to the official workplace. It also finds that 21pc of business leaders see a return of tight public health restrictions caused by the Delta and other Covid-19 variants as the biggest risk to their organisations.

“Our research is further confirmation of the seismic societal change wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Maura Quinn, chief executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland.

“The shift in business leaders’ views in relation to the nature of work or, more precisely, where their organisations’ staff will work once the relevant restrictions are lifted is significant. However, it remains to be seen just how sustainable these findings will be in practice as we all negotiate the coming months.

“While Q4 2021 is seen as the most likely period when a majority of staff will return to the official workplace, it is an indicator of the level of continuing uncertainty that over 20pc of business leaders still see the biggest risk to their organisations is a return of tight public health restrictions caused by the Delta and other Covid-19 variants. The pace of the national vaccination programme is hugely encouraging, but caution is preceding confidence for many,” Quinn said.

Is hybrid working in its present form fit for purpose?

But what about the views of workers themselves? A new report from recruiter Robert Walters Ireland – A Guide to Hybrid Working: Obstacles and Solutions – which surveyed 1,000 Irish professionals in order to identify the symptoms of dysfunction in hybrid working found that although, 69pc of companies have already adopted hybrid work models, 40pc of employees are yet to hear about their future ways of working.

“As we move toward the easing of most restrictions in across Ireland, it feels like the ‘race is on’ for employers to set their working style in stone”

In fact, 55pc of workers feel that their current hybrid arrangement does not go far enough to help bring a well-needed balance back to their home and work life – with many professionals claiming that the hastily constructed working model has led to more intense working days, bought on by the requirement to now fulfil both face-to-face and virtual meetings.

According to the report, the under-researched and under-tested new hybrid working model has resulted in the Irish workforce feeling overworked (54pc) and exhausted (39pc). 

“As we move toward the easing of most restrictions in across Ireland, it feels like the ‘race is on’ for employers to set their working style in stone,” said Louise Campbell, managing director at Robert Walters Ireland.

“In the past 18 months we have seen numerous corporations make firm statements about the return to office – even within the same sector such as financial services, where the stance differs significantly from firm to firm.

“Whilst the switch to remote working was almost instant, we need to appreciate that was out of necessity. The return to work should be gradual – employers and employees alike should use this year to test a variety of working styles from hybrid-working to the removal of a 9-5 in favour of choosing hours based on project load.

“Businesses and professionals alike have a unique opportunity to form a new way of working – which if done right and carefully thought through could bring about greater efficiencies, higher productivity, more creativity, lower costs and overall improvement in wellbeing, morale and subsequently employee turnover.”

Employees are still in the dark

The Robert Walters report has found that many employees are still in the dark about their employer’s plans for post-pandemic working – with 40pc stating they are yet to hear about any vision, and a further 28pc claiming that what they’ve heard remains vague.

Campbell adds: “Communication is the key to solving many workplace grievances – and in times of change or upheaval, such as the last year, we would have expected all good employers to be regularly communicating with their staff.

“For management who aren’t receiving much guidance from their superiors, I would encourage them not to be nervous to take matters – to an extent – into their own hands. Don’t be afraid to inform your team that there is no solid confirmation on the new way of working, give flex to your team so that they can make their own working arrangement suiting their needs, and reassure them that their will be more guidance soon but that you are happy with how they are performing. Now more than ever your team will be understanding of the uncertainty – however this will become increasingly more frustrating if there is zero dialogue between management and employees.”

Gen Z flight risk

One thing is for sure, employees certainly have the upper-hand when it comes to discussions around flexi-working. In fact, an overwhelming 85pc of Irish professionals now expect as standard more flexibility to work from home post-pandemic – with 78pc of professionals stating that they would not take on a new job until this was agreed upfront with their prospective employer.

“Our research shows that the diminishing social capital accessible through the hybrid or fully working from home model could turn the younger staffers into a ‘flight risk’”

What’s more, 42pc of employees stated that they would quit if their employer doesn’t offer remote working options long term.

“It’s not surprising to hear the call for more office time given that 85pc of professionals recorded a decline in their wellbeing in 2020,” said Campbell.

“Added to this, studies have found that employees working mainly from home were less likely to receive a bonus, get promoted or receive training than colleagues who spent more time in the workplace.”

The Robert Walters research suggests that younger workers could be particularly impacted by the lack of time in the office, with 75pc of workers aged 18-26 year (Gen Z) stating that the workplace is their number one source of meaning and social connection. In fact, 54pc of Gen Z workers have said they are likely to leave their employer within 12 months if a workplace culture does not return.

“Our research shows that the diminishing social capital accessible through the hybrid or fully working from home model could turn the younger staffers into a ‘flight risk.’ Additionally, talent retention is at its highest levels when employers invest time and effort in building and maintaining a workplace culture that prioritises social capital for employees.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.

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