Those pushing return of the five day office week will lose in the end - talent will dictate the terms

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 8, 2021
A report this morning on the BBC has argued that the five day office week will return ‘within two years’. This thinking is lazy at best, embarrassing at worst.

Row of empty chairs at office cubicles - Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash
(Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash)

One of the lessons I thought we had learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic is that a company is nothing without its people. Organizations told us time and time again that they were able to continue to succeed during ongoing periods of instability because of how their people were able to adapt and take on new challenges. However, it seems that for sections of the market, the true belief is that a company is actually nothing without its office! 

I woke up this morning to see that the BBC had published a piece with the headline - ‘Five day office week will return again'. The article does what it says on the tin and goes on to cite think tanks, real estate agencies and businesses in city centers, all arguing why the return to a rigid five day week in the office is so important. 

This is an argument we have seen pop up time and time again in recent months, with some experts or business leaders telling us why being an office full time is so critically important. 

However, I would argue that this attitude suggests a woeful lack of imagination at best - and actually ignores the interests of employees in favour of vested interests, at worst. 

Take a look at the think tank that spurred the headline quote in the BBC article - Centre for Cities - which states that it is an "independent, non-partisan registered charity" and that its work is made possible through funding partners, which include "foundations, cities and businesses". 

Paul Swinney, Director of Policy and Research at Centre for Cities, told the BBC:

I expect we will see three or four days a week in the office as the UK recovers.

Over the longer term, I'm quite hopeful that we will see people return five days a week.

The reason for that is, one of the benefits of being in the office is having interactions with other people, coming up with new ideas and sharing information.

Swinney went on to say that this could not be done by scheduling a 3pm meeting on a Tuesday - it *had* to happen randomly. 

The article then goes on to cite Director of Strategy at commercial property developer Bruntwood, Jessica Bowles, who said that hybrid working does not mean flexible office space leases are any cheaper as "flexibility is priced in" and that most firms want to keep a five day office. She said: 

Most businesses that have got space with us now want to maintain having an office, and they don't see that they could give up the office for a certain number of days a week - they just want to use the space differently.

That means more collaborative space, fewer banks of desks, places where people can come together and create and innovate.

It's just so short sighted

It doesn't take a genius to look at the above analysis and understand why some are pushing for a fixed five day office week. It's not that imagining a new future of work is beyond their capabilities, but there are sections of the market where it would be easier if everyone just went back to the office. 

Investments have been made in city centre buildings and companies want to see those investments work for them. In addition to this, if people are working at home at least some of the week, this requires some novel thinking about how work can be done differently, as well as setting up new systems, tools and processes. That is perhaps too taxing for some. 

But what is often missed out of these conversations - and is something that we are hearing often from the organizations that are doing the work to think this through - is that the talent will dictate the terms. 

Not all organizations (thankfully) are going to push for a full time return to the office, as we have seen with companies that are leading in reimagining the future of work. And this will mean that there is choice in the market for job hunters that are thinking about where and how they are productive. 

In recent years the status quo was that when applying for positions you'd be in the office most of the time - but that has now changed and employees have proven how effective working from home can be. I predict that having that choice available in the job market will mean that organizations that want everyone in the office all the time will miss out on large numbers of candidates that just aren't willing to have such rigid terms dictated to them. 

And if your company isn't open to all the best candidates available, you're effectively shooting yourself in the foot and can't really claim that you're making all the right strategic decisions. Sure, some big and powerful companies with strong brand recognition might have more sway in the market in the medium term, but I still strongly believe that pushing for full-time office work is a poor business decision. 

My take

I'd like to caveat some of the above by saying that I don't think this is as simple as saying ‘everyone works from home forever, job done!'. 

This isn't easy and things are lost without some face-to-face collaboration. Some job functions will be better suited to more time in the office too. Equally, companies are still figuring out the best models for distributed work, at the same time as collaboration vendors are racing to invest in the tools that can make it easier. 

A hybrid world will likely become the most popular model for forward thinking organizations, ones that look to their office space to become hubs for collaboration, team building and fostering culture. Yes, systems, tooling and processes will need investment and things will go wrong, but to drive a return to the office from the top-down is maddeningly naive. The powers that be will try in some cases, but I can guarantee that this model will not work in the long term and companies with a job ad stating ‘full time office days' are going to look embarrassing to many in a few years time. 

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