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

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty

With inflation biting and businesses worried about a potential economic downturn, the outlook for flexible working has looked a bit more uncertain in recent months.

According to figures from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS), just over three in ten workers are currently working from home at least part of the time. Those able to work from home to some extent report better work-life balance (78%), fewer distractions (53%) and the ability to get more work done (53%).

Understandably, employees want to keep these hard-earned freedoms. However, employers may have other plans.

According to a recent report by A.Team and MassChallenge, 55% of technology leaders plan to ask their employees to work more in the office in the next 12 months. Additionally, 53% of executives said an economic downturn “would make it easier to require employees to go back to the office.” With hiring slowing and job cuts, some employers may well use this as an opportunity to reverse — or at least curb — remote work.

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No doubt many executives will be paying attention to how big tech companies are responding to the situation. Apple, for example, has fired a number of recruiters and plans to cut hiring next year to help the company weather an uncertain economic climate. Meta, Microsoft and Google have also announced plans to phase out hiring more slowly, and all four tech giants have taken steps in recent months to bring their employees into the office more regularly.

Prompting employees to return to the office in response to financial uncertainties feels more like a return to what feels familiar than a viable way to meet the challenges ahead. While this could help executives regain a sense of control and run the company as a much tighter ship, it won’t necessarily help improve productivity or engagement. ONS data suggests that 78% of employees who work from home in some capacity report a better work-life balance and taking that away is not going to do employers any favours.

Workers might also choose to return to the office when working from home becomes significantly more expensive.

In the UK, for example, energy bills are rising fast. Utility bills are already creeping up from working from home, and as winter approaches, many workers will be forced to choose between costly heating bills, a cold house, or a commute — which is far from appealing.

Whether employees save money by working from the office five days a week is another question. Commuting can be expensive, and when parents suddenly have to worry about childcare, telecommuting may remain the cheaper option. Either way, it will contribute to a complex balancing act.

For their part, leaders should consider how their decisions will affect employees in times of economic uncertainty. Bills could go up, but salaries lag behind. Yes, leaders need to run a business and think about the bottom line, but ordering a return to the office that leaves employees financially behind will not solve any of the problems they are trying to address.

No matter what the coming months bring, when it comes to hybrid work, the genie doesn’t go back in the bottle. Recessions can cause people to freeze at pace or encourage businesses to return to what feels safe. But what worked before may not work in the future, and companies should consider what they could lose by reverting to old ways of working.

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