More Companies Are Demanding ‘Get Back To The Office’ – Despite Evidence Showing People Are More Productive At Home

The flexible working divide is increasing; like three year olds playing hokey-cokey at a kids party, employees do not know if they are in or out - quite literally - of the office or not.


by Anna Whitehouse |
Published on

The flexible working divide is increasing; like three year olds playing hokey-cokey at a kids party, employees do not know if they are in or out - quite literally - of the office or not. In the words of a Facebook dating status…‘it’s complicated’.

From one flexible working high, to a ‘back to the office’ low. From the highs of the four-day week trial, which found 92% of companies involved will be keeping their four-day working week - to the lows of Amazon declaring those who don’t return to the office are at risk of being fired.

One day, we’re celebrating the progression of the right to request flex from 26 weeks to day one of employment - and then Nike, a company known for challenging the norm and pushing people out of their comfort zones, clamps down - ordering employees to ‘Just Do It’ and get back to the office for four days per week from January. New year, old start.

It’s not just Nike; Dyson, Twitter, and Snapchat are all forcing people back to their desks - as if the last few years have been an all-inclusive holiday, but sadly, now we must hand back our hotel keys and get back to work - the ‘party’ is over. A recent study from KPMG has compounded this trend in new data - which has revealed that 64% of global CEOs expect to see a full return to the office by 2026. A further 87% said they are more likely to reward employees who come into the office with better assignments, raises or promotions. Sigh.

At the same time, Nick Bloom, an academic who pioneers work on flexible working, has announced the results of two new studies into WFH and hybrid working. His recent work has demonstrated the failure of managers to assess the performance of hybrid and remote workers correctly.

In a randomised study at an ASDAQ-listed company with 16,000 staff, Bloom and researchers from Stanford University looked into the company performance of WFH vs in-office working - they then looked at the knock-on effect of this on their future compensation.

The findings revealed that over a span of nine months, the WFH group showed a hefty 13% performance increase. Delving deeper into this number 9% of this increase stemmed from working more minutes per shift due to fewer breaks and sick days, while the remaining 4% came from more calls per minute, most likely due to a quieter working environment - fewer distractions, ahem watercooler moments anyone? Additionally, The 35% of people in the office group left, compared to the WFH group’s 17%. More work, less sickness, less quitting - this is what the cold, hard data tells us.

However, in a colossal face-palm moment - the study then revealed that managers’ assessment of performance went in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, with no management training to assess the performance of remote staff, the managers adopted the natural and intuitive ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude, underestimating the higher productivity of the WFH group. Bloom’s replicated study of hybrid working had similar outcomes.

Employers need to learn and listen to the valuable lesson here. If we make finger-in-the-air decisions about where employees need to be and when we are completely lacking in empathy and consideration for the impact that this will have on employees' individual circumstances. We are also telling people that they are no longer welcome or that they need not apply.

It is well documented that 1.7 million women would love to work more hours - if they could access and afford childcare, a lack of which enforces a reliance on flexible working. Mothers need flexible working. Today, women are twice as likely to work flexibly than men are, and if women can work flexibly, then they are twice as likely to remain in the workforce post-pregnancy.

Instead, from the 22nd of November, women officially start working for free based on the gender pay gap in companies - it’s coined by Fawcett as ‘Equal pay Day’ - flexible working is a key component of closing the gender pay gap.

But it’s not just about gender. Research has found that a majority (85%) of disabled workers in the UK are more productive when they work from home, and a further 80% of disabled workers deem flexible working as essential when looking for a new job. Flexible working lets people in.

Presenteeism bias from leaders, those who are not enduring the needs of their employees, is dangerous. We need to train managers to embrace and understand the merits of flexible working. We need to approach work through a human lens to avoid inhumane dictation.

Instead of Just Do It…Just listen. Employee happiness depends on it.

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