At the moment, there’s a real spectrum of desire regarding returning to the office. The issue is not clear cut, neither for employees or employers, muddied by concerns of health, finance, family, environmental footprint, and more.

There are some people for whom office working is now a thing of the past. Some are pushing to get back to the normal five-day work week in the office, while others are just testing the waters with one or two days back.

Overall, the past 18 months have forced a reconsideration of the purpose of the office. We hosted a panel discussion with a group of experienced PLC Group Finance Controllers across a wide range of industries, from life sciences and logistics, to automobiles and shipping, to dig into challenges and concerns in this area, as well as ideas for moving forwards.

Will it be possible to return to a fully office-based work system or is hybrid here to stay?

Right now, it would be very challenging to try and sell teams on a five-day office work week, particularly with the persistence of the Delta variant. One panellist notes that younger members of their team, who have not yet received their second vaccine, are particularly hesitant about returning to the office amidst the relaxation of the rules.

A mixed model is important when recruiting new team members; there’s been a real backlash from candidates regarding anything other than a hybrid approach. Both fully remote and fully office-based are proving hard positions to sell candidates on, with the return to full-time in the office being particularly unattractive. “How many days in the office is the first thing candidates ask now, after pay,” said one panellist.

What are the hesitations about coming back to the office?

Health and safety is understandably at the top of the list, and companies are racing to find ways to mitigate concerns. Panellists outlined everything from enhanced cleaning and mask policies, to plastic screens in between desks and desk-booking systems for those who take a hot desk approach. And all agreed that shared keyboards are a thing of the past.

For some, these measures are seen as gentle, reassuring encouragement to get people through the doors – with an open ended approach that allows for evaluation and change as  the situation progresses. For others, a firmer approach is being taken. One panellist explained that their company has made it clear that the return to the office is happening, slowly but surely.  “We were forced into this situation of remote and flexible working over the past 18 months,” they explained. “And while a ‘new normal’ may have started emerging for some, we want to get back to where we were before.”

Is travel to and from the office a concern?

The commute is becoming a hot issue. Over the past 18 months, people have gained time and money through working at home – and they’re used to it now. They’re going to be more cash- and time-poor with a return to the office.

And then there’s the environmental impact. Many panellists agree that part of the ESG agenda moving forwards will take into account the carbon footprint of commuting. But it is just one facet of a bigger picture. What about the offices themselves? Especially if, with flexible working, there are whole days when no one uses the office at all?

Ultimately, panellists agree that it’s not just offices that are changing at the moment, but attitudes. People’s priorities are different.

Companies need to figure out how to bring their ESG agenda to life. One panellist explained that for their next financing round, they want to generate something that has real substance to it. “We have an ESG specialist, but the success of the programme will be that we all own it,” they explained. “It will be both client and employee-facing, embedded in everything, and very visible.”

Is there an impact on productivity and efficiency?

On the face of it, it can be less efficient going into the office, depending on the role. In finance, time at the desk makes a big impact – and, according to panellists, this was something they were getting consistently at home, without hours wasted for commuting or walking between meetings. Productivity, for them, wasn’t hindered but enhanced. Of course, it can be hard to monitor and manage teams at a distance. There needs to be a measure of trust placed in employees – or measures implemented to monitor output.

However, right now, the mixed approach – some days in the office, some at home – is complicating matters and impacting efficiency. One panellist said that they recently travelled all the way to the office, just to spend five hours on Teams, while another said their whole day in the office boiled down to a good two-hour face-to-face, and a solid 45 minutes of conversation with someone else. But was it worth it? “That’s the circle individuals are going to have to square,” said one panellist. 

What kind of impact is flexible working having on teams?

Some panellists were concerned about the impact it would have on juniors, who might get less mentoring, or the kind of “learning by osmosis” that the panellists benefited from when they were coming up.

However, it was suggested that technology can allow that kind of learning to be replicated virtually. People have been working remotely for a while now and they’re used to interacting in that way. “But is there anything better than the discussions you have when sitting across from each other?” asked one panellist. “The adrenaline is pumping and you put on a better performance. There’s a more intense drive.”

There is a give and take at work. In the office, you can engage more easily. But remotely, many reported finding that they have boosted connections across the business, both in terms of regularity and scope.

One panellist mentioned that they actually spend more time with different groups now, including juniors, than they were ever able to manage in the office. Another said they established a catch-up call with the team that lasted through lockdown and kept them connected in a more deliberate way than they had ever achieved previously.

The onus is, to a certain extent, on senior managers to lead by example. But according to some of our panellists, these are the very people for whom flexible working has been most beneficial – and therefore are the most reluctant to return to “normal”.

How can you tackle reluctance about returning to the office?

Summing up, the panel suggested that communication is key. It’s not just about mandating rules, it’s about responding to the situation as it is, and checking in with the team. With that in mind, they suggested three main questions to consider:

  1. Why do people not want to come back?
  2. What can we do to make it more attractive?
  3. How do we make time in the office more meaningful for the team? What’s the value proposition for them?

BIE hosts quarterly meetings for PLC Group Financial Controllers to share experiences and discuss challenges they all face, if you would like to understand more or participate in the discussion, please contact Simon Moore.

Written by

Simon Moore

Simon is responsible for leading BIE’s CFO & Financial Leadership team and selling the BIE proposition to companies who are going through change.

As a member of BIE’s executive leadership team, Simon’s focus is on supporting a wide variety of clients across all c-suite functions who are typically looking to enhance their businesses’ ability to perform. These companies range from FTSE and large privately owned/equity backed businesses through to, SMEs and start-ups with a growth agenda who need to mature their enabling functions.

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