The office is back: Is this the end of hybrid working?

The office is back: Is this the end of hybrid working?By Tom Skinner, Managing Director, Go Up

It’s official — the office is back. After years of implementing remote and then flexible working models post-Covid, more and more businesses — including SMEs — are enacting return-to-office policies.

According to Unispace Global Workplace Insights’s report Returning for Good, more than 70% of companies globally have introduced such measures. And while some commentators believe that organisations are settling on a 3:2 model (three days in the office, two days at home), we’re also seeing a number of big name businesses bring back five-day office weeks. These include the likes of Goldman Sachs and X (formerly Twitter).

With two thirds of CEOs thinking five-day office policies will once again be the norm within the next three years, could the end of hybrid working be nigh? We’ve looked at the pros and cons of return-to-office policies for businesses to assess whether full office working weeks really could come back for good.

What are the pros of return-to-office policies for SMEs?

Return-to-office policies can have several potential advantages for SMEs, depending on the specific needs and unique circumstances of the business. Here are some of the pros of implementing such policies:

  • Better collaboration and team building: Returning to the office allows employees to work together in person, fostering collaboration and team building. Face-to-face interactions can lead to more creative problem-solving and better communication, among other benefits.
  • Enhanced company culture and employee engagement: Being in the office can help employees feel more connected to the company culture. It can also enhance their sense of belonging and engagement, as they have more opportunities for social interactions with colleagues.
  • Greater productivity: For some employees, the structure and routine of an office setting can boost productivity. It can help separate work life from personal life and reduce distractions.
  • Better employee wellbeing: Likewise, some staff members may benefit from the routine and social aspects of office life, which can positively impact their mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • Improved mentorship and training: In-person work environments better facilitate mentorship and training opportunities. New employees can learn from experienced colleagues more effectively, with informal learning often occurring through face-to-face interactions too.
  • Access to office resources: Returning to the office potentially gives employees access to better resources, such as specialised equipment, tools, and technologies.
  • Addressing client needs: Certain client-facing jobs, like sales and customer service, may require a physical presence to address client needs effectively and build strong relationships.

What are the cons of return-to-office policies for SMEs?

Return-to-office policies for businesses certainly have their advantages, but they also come with a set of potential drawbacks. Let’s look at some of these:

  • Resistance and morale issues: Mandating a return to the office can lead to resistance from employees who have become accustomed to remote work. This can reduce morale and job satisfaction.
  • Commuting and transportation problems: Employees may face longer commutes and increased transportation costs when they return to the office, particularly if new team members were hired when locality was not a priority. This can impact work-life balance and wellbeing.
  • Cost implications: Returning to the office can increase overhead costs for businesses, including office space, utilities, and maintenance.
  • Talent acquisition and retention issues: Organisations may face challenges in attracting and retaining talent, as many employees now value remote work options. Businesses that don’t offer such flexibility could lose out on skilled professionals.
  • Reduced diversity and inclusion: Mandatory in-office work can disproportionately affect employees with caregiving responsibilities, disabilities, or those who face other barriers to commuting. This can negatively affect diversity and inclusion efforts.
  • Environmental impact: A return to the office may contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions and environmental concerns due to commuting and office energy consumption.
  • Loss of productivity: Commuting and office-related distractions can reduce employee productivity. Some employees may have established effective remote work routines and may find it more challenging to focus in the office.

So: is the end of hybrid working nigh?

Recent trends suggest more days in the office is likely. Even though few businesses are yet to implement five-day office policies, many have introduced 3:2 models. Not only this, but we’re also seeing a number of companies mandate four days in the office, such as Disney and KPMG.

However, it’s unlikely that five-day office weeks will become the norm again. For one, the potential drawbacks for SMEs will likely deter many from implementing it. Secondly, it’s clear that the majority of workers are against the end of hybrid working.

According to Harvard Business Review, the ideal amount of time employees want to spend in the office is 2.5 days. This tracks with many other studies on working models — for example, one found that 64% of workers would search for another job if they were told to go back to the office full-time.

It’s therefore little wonder that Brian Elliott, an executive advisor on flexibility and the founder of the research consortium Future Forum, has stated: “The concept of spending five days a week in the office is dead. That top-down, one-size-fits-all approach can lead to a lot of resentment among workers.”

In many ways, hybrid working really is the perfect solution, as both businesses and employees get the best of both worlds. Even with SMEs mandating that staff spend more time in the office, the hybrid working model is almost certainly here to stay.