Hybrid workers don’t want to go back to the office. But soon they may have to

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty

As inflation bites and businesses worry about a potential economic slowdown, the outlook for flexible working has looked a bit more uncertain in recent months.

Just over three in 10 workers currently work remotely at least part of the time, according to figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). Those who can work from home to some extent report better work-life balance (78%), fewer distractions (53%) and being able to get more work done (53%).

Naturally, employees want to retain these hard-earned freedoms. Employers, however, may have different plans.

According to a recent report by A.Team and MassChallenge, 55% of technology leaders plan to ask more staff to work from the office in the next 12 months. Additionally, 53% of executives said an economic downturn would “make it easier for employees to get back to the office.” As hiring slows and job cuts loom, some employers may well take the opportunity to reverse — or at least limit — remote working.

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No doubt many executives will pay attention to how big tech companies are responding to the situation. Apple, for example, has laid off a number of recruiters and plans to limit hiring next year to help it weather an uncertain economic climate. Meta, Microsoft and Google have also announced plans to slow down hiring, and the four tech giants have taken steps to bring their employees into the office on a more regular basis in recent months.

Asking employees to return to the office in response to financial uncertainty feels more like a return to what feels familiar than a practical way to weather the challenges ahead. While this may help leaders regain a sense of control and run the business like a much tighter ship, it’s not necessarily going to help improve productivity or engagement. ONS data suggests that 78% of employees who work from home to some degree report better work-life balance, and removing it won’t win employers any favour.

Workers may also choose to return to the office if working from home becomes significantly more expensive.

In the UK, for example, energy bills are rising rapidly. Utility bills are already rising due to working from home, and as winter approaches, many employees will be forced to choose between expensive heating bills, a cold house, or commuting, none of which is not very attractive.

Whether or not employees save money by working from the office five days a week is another question. Travel can be expensive, and if parents suddenly have to start thinking about childcare, working remotely may still be the cheapest option. Either way, it will add up to a complex balance exercise.

For their part, leaders must consider the impact of their decisions in times of economic uncertainty on employees. Bills may be rising, but wages are lagging behind. Yes, leaders have a business to run and the bottom line to think about, but if they force a return to the office that puts staff in financial difficulty, that won’t solve any of the problems they’re trying to solve.

No matter what the coming months have in store for us, there’s no getting the genius back in the bottle when it comes to hybrid working. Recessions can have the effect of freezing people in motion or encouraging businesses to return to what seems safe. But what worked before may not work in the future, and companies should think about what they could lose by going back to the old ways of working.

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