More employers demand days in the office, but working from home is ‘here to stay’

The Fair Work Commission sided with an employer asking an employee to return to the office 40 per cent of the time.

The Fair Work Commission sided with an employer asking an employee to return to the office 40 per cent of the time. Photo: Getty

The way Australians work has changed dramatically since COVID-19 upended office culture, but more companies are asking workers to return to their cubicles multiple times a week.

Some 87 per cent of companies have implemented mandatory office days for staff, according to research from recruiters Robert Half, with most expecting employees to be in the office either three or four days a week.

Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University, said research has shown co-ordinated days in the office is the best practice for workplaces.

“Co-ordinated days in the office are usually best in terms of making sure people are there to connect, but it’s usually best to be left to a team level because the team knows what they need to do together,” she said.

“People definitely want flexibility, and if firms are telling people to come into the office five days a week, we’d anticipate seeing people resign and look for other work.”

According to Robert Half’s research, 31 per cent of businesses reported having lost at least one employee, and 40 per cent expect staff to leave because of in-office requirements.

Dr Sander said the “reality is most employees don’t want to work from home five days a week”.

“They do want that interaction and they do want that connection, but what they want is a balance so they can manage other areas of their lives and not have to commute every day,” she said.

“That sweet spot of coming in two to three days a week seems to suit a lot of people, but if someone wants a fully remote job then of course, if they’re going to have to go in two days a week, then they’re going to be looking for that.”

Shifting sentiment

The research found 40 per cent of employers are enforcing days in the office because they believe it is better to have meetings face to face; 37 per cent said employee productivity is improved at the office, and 34 per cent find it hard to maintain corporate culture.

Nicole Gorton, director at Robert Half, said Australian employer sentiments relating to working from home have shifted in the past six months, with businesses putting their foot down.

“While the benefits of bringing people back are extensive, careful consideration needs to be taken when making changes to something of utmost significance to the staff, especially if a business’s work-life harmony benefits are what got the candidate through the door,” she said.

“To manage this in a way that makes employees still feel looked after, employers could adopt a flexible approach and let staff pick which three or four days will fit their schedule the best to come into the office.”

Employees were required in the office four days a week by 28 per cent of businesses, 26 per cent said three days a week, 12 per cent require two days a week and 2 per cent require employees to attend only a single day.

Just 19 per cent of businesses surveyed required employees in the office for all five days.

Pictured is office space in Sydney. Could unused office space be turned into housing?

Less than 20 per cent of employers are requiring their workers at the office five days a week. Photo: Getty

Working from home is here to stay

Dr Sander said working from home is here to stay and is a “whole new landscape of work”.

“There are benefits for organisations as well … it’s an enormous cost saving if you don’t have everyone in five days a week. You save money on real estate space and housing employees in the office,” she said.

“We’ve seen over the last 18 months more of an attempt in certain industries like banking to really push people and try to get them back into the office, and it just hasn’t worked.”

She said decades of job design research have shown when people have greater autonomy in their work, their satisfaction and commitment to the organisation increase.

“People have forgotten that we thought it was all great before COVID, but engagement was only at around a third of the workforce,” she said.

“It wasn’t a utopia at all, and there are many benefits for both employees and the employer in this new landscape of work.”

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