6 October 2023

Four reasons to spend at least three days a week in the office

By Ghassan Karian

When Covid struck, businesses and employees pivoted to home working in a matter of days. Most of us assumed it would be a temporary arrangement. But, three years on, employers are still grappling with hybrid working – and getting people to come back to the office is proving to be harder than we thought.

It’s not through lack of trying. We’ve seen many organisations try (and fail) to force employees to return. Even the CEO of Zoom has asked employees to come back. It says a lot when the leader of the virtual meetings empire admits it’s harder to build trust and innovate in, um, virtual meetings.

Actions like this are often met with a backlash, so naturally many leaders are trying to soften the blow with everything from free beer and lunches to yoga lessons. Unfortunately, the data shows that these tactics won’t cut it.

A key problem for many CEOs is that until now, there’s been very little evidence to support their instinct to recall employees to the mothership. People like leaders to follow their gut, but there’s a limit – especially when it means sacrificing time and money to get to the office.

That’s why Ipsos conducted a study of 1,400 full-time UK office workers. We wanted to understand the impact of remote and hybrid working, and if there’s a happy medium somewhere. We found that employees are more likely to recommend their employer as a great place to work when they spend three to four days in the office vs when they work mostly from home, and that this is also the best working pattern for innovation, transparent decision making and career development. We also found that more than half of 18-24-year-olds report feeling ‘always’ or ‘frequently’ lonely when they work from home most of the week.

Employees who work remotely report a better work-life balance. Alongside the cost of commuting, this is a key factor keeping people at home, and it’s a difficult barrier to overcome.

The worry for businesses is that the negative consequences of remote working on things like culture, innovation, and collaboration happen slowly, gradually eroding their ability to compete or deliver better services for customers.

All of which poses a moral dilemma for organisations. How do they tackle these longer-term challenges, while meeting the personal, financial and wellbeing needs of employees who prefer to work from home more?

What should employers and CEOs do?

First, leaders need to make some tough decisions in the long-term interests of their organisation and of the stakeholders they serve – including their people. It’s short-term pain for long-term gain. The data is clear: leaders need to bite the bullet and mandate employees to spend three days a week in the office.

Next, leaders themselves (and their leadership teams) need to set an example and show up. In the office. Regularly. No excuses.

Finally, the office needs a manifesto – one that sets out the benefits for people and acknowledges the barriers they face – and it needs leaders to champion it.

To be effective, that manifesto needs to be based on powerful, persuasive evidence. The Ipsos report offers just that.

People who work from an office three days a week experience:

  • Better career development

Employees are more likely to have career-focused conversations with their managers if they spend three days a week at their employer’s location.

  • Less bureaucracy

Many things just work better in person – like knowing who can make decisions and being able to react quickly to new opportunities and challenges. Agile employers tend to be more innovative – and more successful.

  • More investment in the next generation

More frequent office time benefits younger workers, reducing loneliness and helping them learn new skills by observing their colleagues. And of course everyone benefits when new recruits get up to speed quicker.

  • Better teamwork

It’s easier to build strong, trusting relationships when employees work together in person – and these types of relationship are vital for collaboration and great at-work experiences. Yes, virtual interactions have merit – but employees report these can sometimes feel like more of a chore than a joy.

If employers take action in these areas, they’ll ensure their people have the best experiences in the office – and they’ll help tackle the causes of poor work-life balance that are keeping people away. Things like improving heavy workloads, poor communication, sluggish processes and inefficient systems; investing in skills development for their employees; ensuring leaders walk-the-talk; and ensuring equitable career development for all.

These are the areas that employees really care about. That’s where the conversation should focus. A free lunch is nice, but it won’t address the critical issues. It should only be offered as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down – because ultimately only going back to the office will make employees, and businesses, feel better.

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Ghassan Karian is CEO of Ipsos Karian and Box.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.