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Why are we still talking about office attendance?

Office, Retail & Commercial
working from home

In between the not unrelated news of a softening in inflation and the call of a snap election, two other stories caught my attention last week. The first reported that office occupancy from Tuesday to Thursday was back at pre-pandemic levels according to Simon Carter, chief executive of British Land, one of Britain’s biggest landlords, with Mondays getting busier and Fridays remaining fundamentally changed. The second described how regulatory changes from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority meant that some firms, including Barclays, were considering mandating their employees to be back in the office five days a week. My response to both: why are we still talking about this?

It has been over four years since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In that time, we have had two head coaches of the English rugby team, three different Prime Ministers (three times as many as we have had general elections), four new albums from Taylor Swift (not to mention four old albums from Taylor Swift that have been re-recorded as Taylor’s Version) and five series of Love Island. Yet we seem to still be stuck on the same future-of-the-office debate that first came into the picture in March 2020. Why is this? Is it that the future of how and where we work still captures the collective imagination? I wouldn’t be so sure.

I recently met someone whose work had moved from a policy of no mandatory office time to five days a week in the office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the move had not been a popular one. While met with compliance, he and his colleagues were surprised that the move towards a strict policy came after such a long time without even having guidelines in place. Importantly, the issue was not the addition of time in the office – I think we can all agree that the office can offer a huge amount in terms of productivity, collaboration and fun – but instead the removal of autonomy and the ability to judge for oneself the best way of delivering your best professional performance on any given day. Working from home was an option he valued, but one he valued equally to the optionality of how he worked.

I think it is this – the sense that, for some, the ‘old’ normal of a five-day week is still considered to be the ‘true’ normal and a benchmark to which we shall return sooner or later - that keeps hybrid-working policies and debates around the future of the workplace in the headlines and in conversations. It creates a sense of fear that the ability to make choices for oneself about how and where to work will be taken away should the opportunity arise. Indeed, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, has since come out to say that if firms have mandated five-day weeks since the announcement of the various changes that are due to take effect in coming weeks, then it has very little to do with the changes and much more to do with the firms themselves.

How then can we move the conversation along so that by the time we are next talking about a new Prime Minister or a new Taylor Swift album, or a new recording of an old one, the fact that Fridays aren’t a popular office day is not still making headlines? For me, the answer is simple: treat employees like the stakeholders they are, not chess pieces to be moved around and make the basis of any policy, respect.