Return to office mandates could be worsening workplace relations

return to office

As many businesses are returning to work in the office in the midst of the country’s post-pandemic recovery, there is also a growing conflict between management and employees with regard to how people work, the impact of the changes to the work environment brought by the pandemic, and the future of the office.

This conflict is highlighted in the newly-released report “The Office Clash: How back to work policies are dividing management and workers” by RMIT Online. As Claire Hopkins, RMIT Online interim CEO elaborated, “There is a clear disagreement about hybrid work, the flexibility companies are willing to implement, and what workers want.”

The report highlighted that while 44 per cent of the workers interviewed went back to the office full time, 71 per cent of these workers would prefer to spend at least one day at home and 56 per cent two days or more.

Another notable finding is that 21 per cent of those interviewed believe management and teams agree on the best working model as it is revealed that managers and non-managers have different views about productivity, why people want a hybrid model, and companies want them in the office. In particular, 58 per cent of managers agree workers can be equally productive at home or in the office, but only 24 per cent said workers are more effective in the office, a belief shared by only 12 per cent of employees.

On the other hand, 93 per cent of workers stated that flexibility is essential when deciding to accept a new job or stay in their current role. As such, the report noted that approximately one in three managers have lost or risk losing team members over their flexibility policies. Businesses with rigid working models have seen such policies a factor in 75 per cent of workforce losses.

Almost a third of employees (27 per cent) think companies don’t know why the office is essential. The insistence on going back, they believe, is motivated by tradition or leaders feeling the office is a physical representation of their professional success.

Looking at the future, 46 per cent believe the hybrid model will continue to be a central part of work for the foreseeable future and 31 per cent believe the office will be fragmented or decentralised and moved closer to where people live. As of now, 51 per cent of organisations have a hybrid working model, with two-thirds of them offering employees some level of flexibility to choose the days they are in the office.

For companies that are adamant in their return to office policies, 47 per cent said these companies need to identify the reasons for going back to the office and be transparent about it. The same number agrees that businesses must listen more to employees and allow individual solutions.

Hopkins noted, “This seismic shift in ways of working means we all have to create a new normal. And employees will vote with their feet if they’re not given the opportunity to co-design this with their employer. The challenge for leaders is understanding what activities deliver better quality when done in person versus those that are best done remotely or asynchronously.”

She concluded, “It’s now time to stop and think about the role of the office. The only thing we can be certain about is that this will continue to evolve and the companies that take a test-and-learn approach with their team will win in terms of attracting and retaining great people.”