In a post-pandemic world, leaders are starting to float the idea of getting back to “the norm” -i.e. employees returning to the office full-time, or near enough to. Now in most cases, this is a reasonable request, but at what cost?

Picture this, for the last 3+ years you’ve been working from home. You’ve set up your personal life around this arrangement including caring responsibilities, chores and general life admin. Now, all of a sudden, it’s a Friday afternoon and your boss is telling you everyone needs to be back in the office full-time as of 9:00 am on Monday morning. Your life, once again, has been pivoted to a new “normal”. I know how I’d feel about this.

With that said, let’s explore why, how and when a return to the office works for everyone involved – organisations, leaders and team members included.

The why

We get it, having employees work from the office can result in an array of advantages including;

  • Building connection and rapport with teams
  • Cutting down formal meeting times
  • Increasing learning opportunities by osmosis
  • Increasing visibility to team output and performance
  • Encourages collaboration and creativity

With this in mind, it’s no surprise why leaders would be encouraging employees to increase their days in the office. But many of these positives are very high level and result in advantages at a business level but not so much at an individual level.

The Legal Side

In most cases, employers are permitted to direct their employees to return to their normal, pre-pandemic working arrangement (i.e. at the office), provided the requirement is lawful and reasonable. An employee is unable to refuse an employer’s direction to perform work if the direction is reasonable and in line with the employer’s obligations.

So, in essence, yes you can technically request your employees to return to the office, BUT there are still some caveats on this – if an employee has reasonable concerns about their health and safety or another legitimate reasons, they may refuse the request.

The Best Practice Side

Now that we’ve established that (in most cases) it is lawful to request employees to return to the office, the next question to ask is, is it recommended?

In our experience, a one-size-fits all approach doesn’t work anymore. Some people thrive from being in the office 5 days a week, others prefer to be in the office 1 day a week, and the rest fall somewhere in between. Offering a hybrid model to your employees and allowing them a degree of control over what best suits their needs is our recommended approach.

The challenge here is developing a strategy that keeps both employees and employers happy. According to the Financial Review, polls have consistently shown that employees do value some degree of face-to-face time and want to be in the office, although not as much as managers would like.  So here begs the question, how do we strike a balance?

The Approach

We know that as intelligent and independent humans, we love being told what to do (not!), so why do we think it would work telling our employees to return to the office on our terms?

Any discussions to increase days in the office (whether full time or in a hybrid model) should be done in consultation with your team. Explain to them the reasons why you’d prefer this change and spell out the advantages to them, the team and the overall organisation. Seek their feedback, recommendations or concerns they may have about your proposition. Put yourself in their shoes and respond to their concerns with empathy and understanding. Consider whether there are any OH&S or legal boundaries concerning their return and finally, try to negotiate an arrangement that suits both parties.

The Risk

Putting your foot down and demanding everyone return to pre-covid working conditions (such as a return to the office full time) may result in a number of negative effects and increased risks including;

  • Demotivating usually motivated workers
  • Increase in staff turnover
  • Risk of adverse action claims
  • Risk of Workcover claims
  • Low employee engagement
  • Higher rate of burnout (tied to risk of Workcover claims)
  • Disadvantage from a recruitment and attraction perspective

The risks of expecting a full-time return are undeniably there and will likely result in a cost to the business, so ultimately leaders need to ask themselves, is it worth it?

The Key Takeaway

Whilst it might be reasonable to expect employees to increase their return to the workplace in some capacity, the process you take to get there is going to be the make or break. Consultation, transparency and understanding will underpin any workplace change, especially an increase in office days.

Written by HR Guru, Madeleine Bray.

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