Offices in the U.K. are making a comeback—or maybe employees are. Workers and employers have been engaged in a tug-of-war over return-to-work mandates since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. But U.K. employers’ push to bring their staff back to the office may now be paying off, with more workers coming to offices all days of the week than staying home—for the first time since the pandemic.
Global recruitment agency Hays Plc found that about 43% of employees worked entirely from the office between August and September, compared to 36% during the same period in 2022. That’s compared to fewer than two-fifths of employees who are working in a hybrid set-up and one-fifth working fully remotely, according to a Hays report viewed by Fortune.
The company surveyed nearly 15,000 white-collar workers and employers across Britain.
Despite an increasing pivot back to in-person work, employees still seem to have a strong preference for a hybrid work arrangement, according to Hays. The group’s survey revealed that when searching for new roles, the flexibility of hybrid work is a top priority for almost half of the respondents.
“It’s clear from our research that there’s still no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to how staff want to work and how flexible employers are willing to be,” Gaelle Blake, head of permanent appointments at Hays UK and Ireland, said in a statement. “Yet, despite more workers saying they are now working full time in an office—it’s evident that hybrid working can’t be erased overnight.”
Employees aren’t just in favor of workplace flexibility—an overwhelming number (45%) of them want a four-day workweek without a loss in pay, even though only about 10% of employees offer that at present, Hays found. The leaning to a shorter workweek, which the U.K. piloted last year with great success in increasing productivity and lowering turnover, is serious—employees would even consider quitting jobs to pursue it.
Where is the future (of work) headed?
Employee keenness in holding on to a flexible work arrangement continues to be at odds with what employers are hoping to do—in the next 12 months, a quarter of the bosses surveyed want more of their staff back in offices. If the U.S. is any example, employers are going to great lengths to have workers return to offices again, including raises and promotions.
The push to bring workers back into offices more frequently could go either way—in some cases, even when employers want people back in offices more, employees don’t always comply, according to data from BCG published in August. In fact, employees were more likely to follow through on an all-hybrid work model, with 99% of workers complying with it, compared to just 77% when specific in-office days were prescribed.
Hays’s Blake thinks that bosses need to gauge what works best for their employees and the style of work instead of introducing blanket policies requiring office attendance.
“What employers need to understand is that everyone is different—some workers may thrive in an office environment, and some won’t,” Blake said. “If employers are asking staff back to the office more—they need to question if they are doing it for the right reasons such as facilitating more team building opportunities and offering an enticing work environment. Employers who are asking staff to come into the office more due to a lack of trust will struggle to retain staff going forward.”
Nick South, BCG’s managing director in London, echoed Blake’s thoughts in an interview with Fortune earlier this month.
“There’s an intrinsic thing that when staff feel entrusted and empowered and have agency over their work, you get extra effort from them,” South said. “If organizations are smart, they recognize employees want flexibility and will try and make that work.”
Organizations across the world will likely grapple with what might be the right balance of in-person and hybrid work for the next few years that allows for flexibility when employees need it while also fostering company culture.
AWA, a workplace consultancy, found in an international survey that employees came to offices on average for about two days of the week. The decision for how many days could further depend on factors such as commute time, organizational culture and more, AWA’s consulting director Brad Taylor wrote in a blogpost last month.
“What we’re seeing is that people value being able to work remotely,” Taylor said, noting the range of benefits hybrid work offers to employees. “But that is just one facet of a healthy organisation (productive employees). What is also required is the cohesiveness that enables things to be done collectively. That‘s a challenging thing to do purely virtually.”